NEW ORLEANS -- Florida debated how early to take the last shot of regulation. The differential between the shot clock and the game clock was eight seconds.
The Gators’ coaching staff was adamant that they didn’t want BYU’s Jimmer Fredette to take the last shot.
So when Kenny Boynton lofted a 3-pointer in front of the UF bench with 24 seconds remaining, the staff knew that if it didn’t go in, Florida could be in trouble.
The ball went long. But BYU’s Noah Hartsock and Kyle Collinsworth were confused as to who would chase it down. So no one did. Instead, Florida’s Erving Walker raced to the loose rebound on the opposite side from where Boynton lofted the shot.
“It was so big because they could have easily gone the other way,’’ Boynton said. “Fredette is so good at drawing fouls and taking a last shot. It would have been game over for us. That was a big rebound.”
Chandler Parsons eventually took the game’s last shot of regulation. He missed, but the Gators had done what they had to do -- ensure BYU and Fredette didn’t have the last shot to win the game.
“We had a chance, we got a stop, but we had a chance to get a rebound and they got the offensive rebound and put it out,’’ Fredette said. “And you never know what could have happened if we got that rebound. But they definitely had fresh legs and they were ready to go in that overtime.’’
Florida was rejuvenated in the extra five minutes. BYU was gassed. And the Gators won 83-74 in overtime to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since winning consecutive national championships in 2006 and ’07.
And if the Gators win Saturday here at New Orleans Arena, they might point back to Walker’s hustle play as the reason, or at least an example of the difference between this Gators team and the previous three.
“I was actually kind of lucky because I was supposed to get back after Kenny’s shot, but I just hung around a little bit and I seen the ball go to the corner and I just made a hustle play,’’ Walker said. “I was able to come up with the ball.’’
Hartsock said he saw the ball come off but didn’t react.
“We had stopped them from making a shot, but then we had to play [defense for 14 more seconds]. It was heartbreaking,’’ Hartsock said. “The quick guard picked it up.’’
Said BYU’s Jackson Emery, “That was real big; he shot it early and they were in the position we wanted, but it was tough because we thought we’d have a second chance. It was a big play, and they made winning plays.’’
This Florida team has made a habit of that this season, beating Tennessee twice in close affairs, as well as winning at Georgia and against Kentucky and Vanderbilt on final possessions or within the final few.
“We’ve found ways to make plays,’’ UF coach Billy Donovan said. “There’s an understanding with this group of how much more those things impact winning. I’m not sure they had a clue [earlier]. It took them getting their heart broken a lot to know they had to be more alert and make those plays.’’
Florida’s defense on Fredette wasn’t perfect but it flustered him enough, with the Gators rushing two players at him and running over screens with a big to force him to drive. Fredette’s passing helped the Cougars tie things up tie at the half, and he found the seams to get to the basket by driving.
But Fredette still had to go high volume with 29 shots to score 32 points, making just three of a career-high 15 3-point attempts. His teammates were too 3-happy as well, going 10-of-37 as a team.
The Gators had more offensive balance, with four double-figure scorers to BYU’s one, but the rebounding with Alex Tyus (17 rebounds, 19 points) and Walker (six rebounds), one of the shortest players on the court, proved to be decisive.
“It was a great hustle play,’’ Tyus said of Walker’s rebound.
“We didn’t give them a chance to win it,’’ Parsons said.
And now seniors like Tyus and Parsons are one game away from reaching the Final Four and climbing out from under the shadows of the consecutive titles.
The Gators missed the NCAAs for two consecutive seasons. There were unexpected defections to the pros, such as Marreese Speights and Nick Calathes, and a team that didn’t know how to win big. Yet here they are, winners of the SEC regular season but more importantly, a tougher, grittier team that can finish a game.
The standard for Florida had been set so high with the two titles, a level the Gators couldn’t live up to after losing seven players off the title teams, including three top-10 picks. When the '04s returned for their junior season, Donovan said, recruiting suffered and the staff didn’t back-fill enough to offset the defections.
He crushed his team after that first season for its effort and cavalier attitude. He was frustrated at times with the failure to finish. But he didn’t quit on his players, and they didn’t quit on him or the school.
“It’s been so rewarding for me to see them make the journey they’ve made to this point right now,’’ Donovan said. “It’s been very rewarding and fulfilling for me, and I hope in some way I’ve been able to give them as much as they’ve given me.”