MEN'S HOOPS: It's Not A Masterpiece But It's A Win

There are two ways to look at Florida's 67-62 escape victory over the Ohio Bobcats in round one of the NCAA Tournament. You can look at the way Florida blew a 20-point lead in the second half and came ever so close to another of those unexplainable early departures that have plagued the Gators in the Big Dance the past four years and think UF is in deepest and darkest linguine.

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Or, you can draw a parallel to 2000 when the Gators narrowly escaped Butler in the first round on a march that took them to the national championship game.

That the Gators could blow such a big lead and come ever so close to losing can be viewed as a bad omen for Sunday's second round game or it can be viewed as the kind of great escape that is typical of the first round of the NCAA Tournament. After all, in the Big Dance, it doesn't matter how you win, just so long as you advance. Win big or win ugly, it's just another rung on a six-game ladder that has to be climbed. In 2000, the Gators climbed that first rung by scoring a 69-68 overtime win over a double-digit seeded Butler team, earning the victory when Mike Miller hit a driving jumper as time expired.

Anthony Robertson #1 of the Florida Gators gets past Jeremy Fears #3 of the Ohio Bobcats in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship at the Gaylord Entertainment Center on March 18, 2005 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo By Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

The Gators climbed the first rung Friday afternoon in Nashville by coming up with big plays in the final minute when it seemed that Ohio was going to make the Gators just another skin on the belt of a lower seeded team. Only a combination of good luck and good defense over the final 2:41 kept the Gators from making a truly embarrassing exit. It would have been bad to lose to a 13th seeded team under any circumstance, but to lose after a 20-point lead in the second half would be a loss that would be remembered years from now.

Two plays stand out in particular over the final 2:41 and both can be viewed as a major dodge of a bullet aimed for Florida's heart. One of the plays is a sheer luck happening that might not be repeated once in a hundred tries. The second was the case of a hustling player being in the right spot at the right time.

When Ohio's Jeremy Fears made a steal near midcourt at the 2:43 mark all he could think about was a showtime dunk that would close Florida's once 20-point lead to 60-59. He got up high enough, that's for sure, but he put too much muscle on the dunk and instead of going down, it flew high off the rim and into the waiting arms of David Lee. That was sheer luck. The energy of that play would have sent the crowd sensing the Gators were going down into a rabid frenzy.

The second play came when Anthony Roberson showed why you never stop hustling. Roberson was 2-14 from the field, pretty much incapable of throwing it in the ocean if he were standing on the end of the pier but he was in the right place at the right time when David Lee missed a jumper with 44 seconds to go and the score tied at 60. Roberson came down with the rebound then flipped it back up and in with 42.3 seconds to go. He got fouled on the play and he calmly dropped the free throw in to give Florida the lead for good. Roberson would also sink two free throws with 27 seconds to go to add to Florida's final cushion.

It's the fact that Roberson came up big when the Gators needed him most that makes it easy to draw the parallel to the 2000 game with Butler. In that game, Mike Miller wasn't exactly having his greatest game as a Gator. Although he got 16 points in the game, he missed a lot of open shots. However, when the game was on the line, he had the shot that mattered most.

Matt Walsh #44 of the Florida Gators passes around the defense of Mychal Green #00 of the Ohio Bobcats in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship at the Gaylord Entertainment Center on March 18, 2005 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo By Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Florida would dispatch of Illinois, Duke, Oklahoma State and North Carolina to climb four more rungs on the NCAA ladder before falling to Michigan State in the championship game.

Good teams that advance in the NCAA Tournament are resourceful enough to make an escape or two. Rarely is it the team that blows by everyone on the way to a title. At some point, it seems, there nearly always has to be a great escape.

While Coach Billy Donovan has to be pleased that his team found a way to win and advance, he will be scratching his head about how it was the Gators were put in the position of needing a great escape. Florida had a 36-28 halftime lead that expanded rapidly in the first ten minutes of the second half.

The reason Florida had the big lead is because the Gators turned up the heat on defense while at the same time consistently making extra passes to get good shots from open shooters. The Gators were playing great defense from a matchup 2-3 zone that kept Ohio from getting penetration at the foul line. Using the active zone to cut off the foul line penetration, the Bobcats couldn't free up shooters and with Al Horford and Lee playing tough defense on the low blocks, there was no inside game. On the offensive end, Matt Walsh was staging a clinic with his sharp passes.

Chris Richard's layup off a pass from Matt Walsh with 12:34 remaining in the game made it a 55-35 lead and it seemed the Gators could go cruise control the rest of the way if they just stayed at it with the same kind of intensity and unselfishness. Unfortunately for the Gators, they couldn't keep up the pace. Perhaps it was complacency or perhaps they just went ice cold. Whatever they did, they let Ohio come back. Ohio did nothing to get back in the game that could be construed as a radical departure from the things that didn't work so well in the first 30 minutes of the game. The Bobcats simply took advantage of Florida's sloppiness with the ball and the fact the Gators didn't stick the dagger in their hearts when there was opportunity.

David Lee #24 of the Florida Gators dunks over Terren Harbut #4 of the Ohio Bobcats in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship at the Gaylord Entertainment Center on March 18, 2005 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo By Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

The Bobcats chipped away and little by little, Florida's lead and composure disintegrated until Mychal Green hit a three-ball to tie the score at 60-60 with 2:15 left. They had a chance to take the lead but the Gators came up with a defensive stand, got a stop and got the ball back to set things up for Roberson's clutch play at the end.

So Florida advances and while the win was not a masterpiece, neither was that win over Butler in 2000. When the Gators beat Butler in 2000, they would be facing an Illinois team in round two coached by former Gator Coach Lon Kruger. Fueled by Florida's sub-par first round performance, the talk at that time was how well Illinois matched up and how the Illini's three-point shooters were going to have a field day with the Florida defense.

That didn't happen. Florida made all the big plays and continued its climb until the final game of the season.

The way Florida collapsed Friday against Ohio could be a bad sign that the bubble on which the Gators have ridden the past few weeks is about to pop. Or it could be a sign like that win over Butler in 2000, that the Gators will simply find a way to win. If you asked Billy Donovan what he would prefer, he wouldn't hesitate to tell you he liked things a lot better when the Gators were ahead of Ohio by 20, but that didn't happen, although he got the win, which is all that matters. What you can know for sure is that Billy will try to impart the lessons learned from this hair-raising escape so that they are a catalyst for a Florida run to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.

This is a Florida team that has shown us in the past six weeks that they can muscle it up, that they can win when they aren't shooting well, that they can win with defense and rebounding and that they can come back from way down to secure a win. Friday they showed that they can be pushed to the limits of their composure yet still find something deep within to pull out a victory when another of those hard to explain losses was inevitable.

A blowout win would have been nice, but at this juncture, any win is a good win. The name of the game now is advance any way you can. Win big or win ugly, it doesn't matter at this point.

As Al Davis would say, "Just win, Baby! Just win!"

Right now, that's all that matters. Florida won. Nothing else is important.

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