The surprising unbeaten Gators (5-0) will square off against Rutgers for the championship Saturday night at 8. Michigan State (4-1) and UMass, which lost to the Scarlet Knights 83-75 in the other semifinal, will play in the consolation game at 5:30.
Florida used some clutch free throw shooting (22-of-25, including 9-of-10 in the final 3:48) and a pressure defense that forced 23 Michigan State turnovers to offset a huge advantage on the boards for the Spartans, who finished with a 42-24 rebounding edge.
Michigan State also became the first team to shoot better than 40 percent against UF, hitting for 52 percent from the field. But it wasn't enough.
"I thought our guys played really hard," head coach Billy Donovan said in an interview with WRUF radio. "I thought our press slowed them down some."
Ironically, it was a pair of Gators who are area products – senior forward Dan Werner, a New Jersey native, and sophomore point guard Erving Walker from New York City – who sealed the deal on Florida's biggest basketball win since 2007.
Walker, mired in a dreadful 3-point shooting slump, knocked down a long-range trey with 1:55 left to play to give the Gators a 72-71 lead that they would never relinquish, and Werner provided the final nails in the coffin by knocking down a pair of clutch free throws with 17 seconds remaining and UF clinging to a 75-74 lead.
But the Gators had to withstand a pair of potential game-tying 3-point attempts by Michigan State's Durrell Summers in the waning seconds, both of which missed the mark, before celebrating the big win.
Five Gators scored in double figures, led by junior Chandler Parsons with 14 points. Walker finished with 12 while adding seven assists and three steals, Alex Tyus had 11, and Vernon Macklin and Ray Shipman each added 10 points, a career-high for the latter.
Michigan State was led by reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Kailin Lucas, who led all scorers with 20 points, while Draymond Green added 15 points.
Donovan pointed to UF's bench production as a key to victory.
"Ray Shipman came off the bench and gave us great minutes, Erik Murphy came in and gave us great minutes, Chandler came in and gave us great minutes, and that's what you're going to have to have against a team like this that's going to rotate eight guys in," he said.
The Gators, who led 38-36 at the half, fell behind by seven, 50-43, eight minutes into the second half, but refused to fold. Werner scored four of six straight Gator points to trim the MSU lead to one. The Spartans built it back to five, 57-52, moments later, but UF hung tough and pulled within 59-57 on a 3-pointer by Werner. Walker was then fouled and hit both ends of the 1-and-1 to knot the score at 59-all.
Green scored off an offensive rebound to put the Spartans back up by four, 65-61, but Walker was fouled while shooting and hit both free throws to make it a 2-point game. UF then stole the inbounds pass that led to a Shipman basket and a 65-65 tie.
Parsons then hit four straight foul shots to offset two MSU hoops and force the game's last tie at 69, but Green scored inside to give the Spartans a 71-69 lead, setting the stage for Walker's bomb that gave the Gators the lead for good.
Florida raced out to a 9-2 lead behind five points from Tyus, but the talented Spartans fought back to know the score at 11-all. A 3-pointer by Parsons gave UF a 17-14 lead moments later, and six straight points by Shipman kept the Gators in the lead at 23-18. A dunk by Macklin on a runout after a steal gave UF its second seven-point lead at 27-20.
The Gators would lead by seven again, 34-27, with 3:40 left in the half after back-to-back hoops from Parsons, but Michigan State was able to trim the UF lead to 38-36 at the break.
Gators Upset the Spartans
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