Florida, challenged by Albany, pulls away to win NCAA tournament opener
ORLANDO, Fla. – The 8-vs.-9 matchup is supposed to be the close game. The 1-vs.-16 matchup is supposed to be the blowout. South region No. 8 seed Colorado and No. 16 seed Albany declined to honor that understanding Thursday. A few minutes after the Buffaloes laid down against Pittsburgh, Albany pushed top-seeded Florida deep into the second half before finally succumbing to inevitability.
The Great Danes started off hot from the field, and unlike most of Florida's SEC opponents, they weren't flustered by the Gators' press or smothered by their halfcourt defense. But Florida went on a second-half run sparked by a Patric Young dunk, and the Gators advanced to the Round of 32 with a 67-55 win. Florida will face No. 9 seed Pittsburgh on Saturday in a matchup that looks much closer than the teams’ seeds would suggest.
Albany, which reached Orlando after beating Mount Saint Mary’s in the First Four, got a game-high 21 points from point guard DJ Evans. Evans, generously listed at 5-foot-9, also grabbed seven rebounds. The Great Danes shot 56 percent in the first half, but only because they missed six consecutive shots after making 12 of their first 20. Albany trailed by six at halftime, but tied the score at 39 on Peter Hooley’s free throw with 14:32 remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Florida finally awoke from its slumber. Young (10 points, 10 rebounds) grabbed a Will Yeguete miss, turned and threw down a righthanded dunk that left Albany’s Gary Johnson and John Puk writhing on the ground. Johnson also fouled Young on the play, and Young hit the free throw. On Albany’s next possession, Florida guard Kasey Hill stole a pass and took it the length of the court for a layup. Florida’s 9-0 run following the tie gave the Gators a cushion, and they cruised the rest of the way.
If the Gators get a look at how Pittsburgh played against Colorado, they’ll likely be on high alert Saturday. If Florida’s shooters misfire from three-point range as often as they did Thursday (3 of 12), the Panthers should be able to contain the Gators’ halfcourt offense. If Pittsburgh does that and handles Florida’s press as well as Albany did in the first half, the tournament could lose a No. 1 seed.
The Gators know that, so expect them to arrive Saturday with a little more edge.
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