Defense powers Gators to Sweet 16

OMAHA, Neb. – Everyone knows the Florida Gators can score, but in their first two games of 2012 NCAA Tournament play it was the defense that stole the spotlight. Florida absolutely stifled potential Cinderella Norfolk State, en route to Phoenix and the Sweet 16.

It's fair to say offense has come more easily than defense this season for the Florida Gators.

Offensively, they're the picture of efficiency - ranking fifth nationally in that category. They lead the country in three-point field goals made, are 28th in three-point percentage, and ninth in effective field goal percentage. So when it comes to scoring, the Gators are good.

Defense is, unfortunately, another story. They give up an average of 65.4 points per game, ranking 119th nationally. Opponents register an effective field goal percentage against them of almost 50-percent, and Florida is 93rd in rebound percentage, pulling down just a shade more than half of all available boards.

Their struggles defensively seem at odd with their athleticism and ability. Forwards Erik Murphy and Patric Young are long and athletic, and the 240-pound Young is as burly as they come down low. Guards Bradley Beal, Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario and Erving Walker are all cat quick.

Sunday night, the Gators advanced to the Sweet 16, crushing the glass slipper being crafted for Norfolk State underfoot in a 84-50 victory – and they did it largely on the strength of their defense.

"A lot of people think we're not as good of a defensive team this season, that we're more of an offensive team predicated on the three-point shot," said junior forward Patric Young. "We proved that the last two games against Virginia and tonight that we can play really good defense. And if we lock in on those things, if we come up with those loose balls and the rebounds and get out in transition (Florida can win)."

Yes, Florida shot well, particularly in the first half. Before intermission, the Gators were 16-of-30 from the floor (53.3-percent) and 7-of-16 from beyond the arc. As any coach will admit, hot shooting tends to make life a lot easier.

But it was their defense that really stood out. They weren't flashy or particularly disruptive on the stat sheet, forcing the Spartans into just five turnovers and picking only two steals. It was just good, old-fashioned hard-nosed defense.

Were this "Hoosiers," Norman Dale would have been proud. The Florida guards were in the jerseys of their Norfolk State counterparts from the second the ball was in-bounded, making sure every shot was a contested shot. The result was a half during which the Spartans went just 8-of-31 from the field and 2-of-12 from three-point land.

Even better, the second half was more of the same. Norfolk State couldn't buy an uncontested look, and both their point totals and shooting percentages reflected that difficulty. For the game, the Spartans shot 27.3-percent from the floor and just 16.7-percent from deep, despite launching up 24 attempts.

Norfolk State forward Kyle O'Quinn, one of the hottest names in the country after a dominant performance in their stunning Friday upset over No. 2-seed Missouri, was held to just four points, and a single field goal, and the Gators dominated the boards as well, 48-31.

Two games in to the 2012 NCAA tournament, Florida looks to be tapping into its potential defensively. If the trend holds true through next weekend, the Gators just became one of the more dangerous teams left in the field of 16.

"I just thought that right now we're just locking in on everything that needs to be done," said junior guard Mike Rosario. "We're sacrificing for one another. We're making sure we're knocking down open shots, we're making the extra pass, we're rebounding and we're grabbing loose balls because that's what it comes down to at this time."

"We need to keep that intensity up every game," Young added. "We should have had that from the beginning of the season, but it really counts to have that defense first mindset. We've gotta stop these guys first and our offense is going to take care of itself."

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