Gators' defense stymies nation's top offense

The Northwestern Demons came into the NCAA Basketball Tournament matchup with Florida as the highest scoring team in the nation averaging 81 points per game for the season. The Demons started off at a hectic pace that seemed to favor them especially in the early portion of the first half. The Gators found some order to the madness and things changed.

The Demons ended up shooting 54% overall in the first half and took a half time deficit of eight points and a 40-32 score to the locker room. The 14-seed Demons were a 19 point underdog to the Gators and were still certainly in the game at that point.

Northwestern State then scored the first four points in the first minute of the second half, but that would be the point where Florida would exact their will on the underdogs from the Southland Conference.

It was a combination of Florida controlling the tempo of the game by making their own shots and the Demons missing and having their shots defended.

"You know, really proud of our team for coming out and competing hard… it's all about competing and playing hard," Northwestern State Coach Mike McConathy said after the contest. "We played against an extremely well coached team. It's quite obvious in Florida.

"Their bulk and strength over the course of the game just really got us in the second half when we got ourselves in a situation where we didn't make shots. I think we had 12 empty possessions and they were going down and getting them. And we had a hard time on their ball screens. But I'm really proud of how hard our kids played. Just got to be big enough and strong enough to compete against the talented team and well coached team like Coach Donovan has in Florida.

Guard Shamir Davis averaged 12.1 points per game this season, but finished with just five on the night. Davis shot 50% on the night but got just four shots off. Davis said it was a mixture of the Demons not hitting on things they usualy hit on, but also gave credit to the Gators for a lot of that.

"You have to give a lot of credit to Florida's defense," Davis said. "They are one of the best defensive teams in the nation.

"We were over thinking a lot of shots, shooting a lot of shots that were going long, but they played a really good defense and they got their hands up, contested a lot of shots, so kudos to them.

McConathy said the Demons offense feeds off of their defense and their ability to get a fast break offense going. When Florida made their shots and didn't turn the ball over, it was hard to get out and break to the basket. Their offense suffered because of not getting easy layups in transition and the Demons shot just 19% in the second half.

"It's hard to really imagine this, but our offense spurs off of our defense. And we had two steals. Therefore, we were never able to get in any flow or rhythm because of the fact that we couldn't make anything happen.

"I wouldn't have thought that we would have gone to 19 percent after the first half. I mean we played a very, very good first half. In fact, I think we cut it to four right before the half and we lay it up and then we give them a layup back on the other end… something that we just haven't done this year.

But the caliber of team that Florida is, you just can't make mistakes. We get out rebounded by 17. Four of those were offensive rebounds off of free throws that we work on every day. They made 3 threes out of those, and I think they got a bucket on the other one. So that's 11 points right there off of missed free throw rebounds.

The players were asked to compare the Florida defense to that of Stephen F. Austin, the nation's top defense and a squad that the demons played three times this year. Senior forward James Hulbin the two defenses were comparable, but the Gators are a bit more active in the half court and like to run up and down the court when they get a chance to.

"I would have to say (there is) really not a difference," Hulbin started on Florida's defense and Stephen F. Austin's. "It's just Stephen F, they do (fewer) possessions, and Florida likes to run like we do. But as far as a half-court defense or that, I give (Florida) good credit. They're really a good half court defensive team."

Florida's front court was surprising to the head Demon. The Gators have a little different arrangement than most with a three guard lineup, but can bring in some length with junior forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. But the two starting front court guys offer up different issues. Junior center Patric Young is a banger on the inside and senior forward Erik Murphy can hurt you inside and outside. Both did damage on Friday, Young adding 16 points and nine rebounds and Murphy adding 18 points and eight rebounds.

McConathy knew they were good, but he and his boys were not prepared for their overall athletic ability.

"You know really and truly, when you look at us, we have got pretty good length," McConathy said of his own team. "We walk through an airport and they think we might be semi all airport. But Young and Murphy… just are so long and big, and we let them get the ball where they are going to make a move and their length just is impossible to deal with.

"And in Murphy, of course, being able to step out and shoot the three, it makes it a whole different ball game because you got to be able to react to that situation on the pick and pops that he does.

"So their length was just a huge concern. And it was a bigger concern when I walked out. As I talked to some people, tape really does not do them the justice of their length."

The Gators won't likely face another team that wants to run quite as much as this Demon squad did. They run two platoons of five players each and substitude madly in games to try and just push tempo. Billy Donovan and his crew took several minutes to figure out how to handle it, but once they did, Florida completely controlled the tempo and finished with another double digit victory.

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