With the clock showing 14:06 remaining in the first half and about an hour left in Friday, Florida Gulf Coast had a 15-4 lead on Florida.
By midnight, it was 37-28 in the Gators' favor. And when the clock showed triple zeroes, Florida had turned a potential nightmare into the end of Cinderella's dream, with a grinding, 62-50 victory over high-flying FGCU.
The Eagles soared early in the same way they did in their first two stirring NCAA Tournament victories, with Sherwood Brown throwing down a Brett Comer alley-oop to make the score 9-4. Then Comer fed Bernard Thompson and Chase Fieler the ball on plays that became deep threes, putting Florida in its early hole and giving Comer two points and five assists on the night.
Comer would finish with four points, seven assists, and a career-high nine turnovers.
Florida slowed down the game after that initial flurry, and trapped FGCU in its halfcourt mire — the Eagles wouldn't get a non-transition basket in the halfcourt until the second half — while waiting for its shots to fall. The Gators made just four of their first 20 shots in the first 13:11 of play, and trailed 21-11 before closing the first half on a 19-5 run. Mike Rosario (15 points to lead all scorers) sparked that run with a three, and two threes from Michael Frazier stoked the blaze; by the end of it, Florida had scored 19 points on the half's final 10 possessions, slightly bettering FGCU's 15 on their first nine trips.
Florida delivered another combination to begin the second half, opening with a 5-0 run that elicited a timeout from FGCU coach Andy Enfield and adding another bucket to it for a 37-26 lead. The Gators wouldn't lead by fewer than seven points from that juncture on, and ended up with their 29th win, and 29th win by double digits, by virtue of their asphyxiating defense, which forced 20 turnovers, allowed 20 made baskets, fouled just 11 times, and beheaded the FGCU attack by flummoxing Comer.
Scottie Wilbekin led the way in that effort, sticking to Comer like summer afternoon air in Florida, and Will Yeguete was his closest lieutenant, ripping away four steals and stymieing wing after wing. Wilbekin and Yeguete combined to go 4-for-14 from the field, but, on this night, nothing on offense was as important as selling out on defense.
That's part of why the fleet Casey Prather, who threw down the night's most hellacious dunk, played 26 minutes, and Erik Murphy just 24: Billy Donovan needed to ride his horses on defense, and had thoroughbreds in the stable. Wilbekin, Kenny Boynton, Prather, Yeguete, and Patric Young are a formidable quintet when Florida wants to lock down, and Florida went with those first four and Rosario for stretches, daring the smaller Eagles to go inside against a smallball lineup with no one bigger than the 6'8" Yeguete.
It worked for Florida, as most things other than the jump shot did on this night. An offense that functioned best when a brick turned into a putback chance worked. Sticking Wilbekin on the other team's best playmaker instead of its best scorer worked. Rosario bouncing the ball off an opponent's back on an inbounds play from midcourt worked, and the dunk that came from the play pushed Florida's lead permanently into double digits.
Next up for the Gators is Michigan, which made the comeback of the NCAA Tournament so far to send its Sweet Sixteen game with Kansas to overtime and won a duel with the Jayhawks in the extra period. The Gators and Wolverines will be working on short rest, getting Sunday's first game at 2:20 p.m. Eastern, just 39 hours after the end of Big Blue's win, and about 37 hours after Florida polished off FGCU.
But the winner of that game gets to college basketball's biggest stage. Fatigue will be a factor, but it can't be an excuse.