By Stu Durando, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –
OMAHA, Neb. — The crowd was so sparse inside CenturyLink Center at tip-off Sunday that Norfolk State must have felt like it was playing on its home court, where the Spartans averaged 1,862 fans this season.
The burst of energy they received from the fans in a stunning win Friday over No. 2 seed Missouri was absent against Florida. The Gators didn’t give them a fighting chance.
By the time Florida’s 84-50 victory was 10 minutes old, the 15 minutes of fame had been doused for the school from Norfolk, Va.
Things looked so bleak at halftime that guard Jamel Fuentes had to remind his teammates that Brigham Young overcame a 25-point deficit to win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But that was the closest the Spartans, seeded 15th in the West, could get in the final 20 minutes after No. 7 Florida used a 25-0 first-half run to end the drama.
Kenny Boynton scored 20 points to lead the Gators, and native St. Louisan Bradley Beal (Chaminade Prep) had 14 points and nine rebounds to help Florida advance to the regional semifinals for the second straight year.
Their finest moment for Norfolk State came when, as the team left the floor, the now-filled arena bid adieu with a standing ovation.
“They have a coach (Billy Donovan) who has won two national championships, and this is my first time, our first time,” Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans said. “Hopefully we’ll get back to this point, and we’ll know how to handle it and what to do to get to the next step.”
Norfolk State center Kyle O’Quinn, who had reveled in his role as a sudden star since demolishing Mizzou, failed to score until the Florida lead had reached 25 points.
He had 26 points and 14 rebounds Thursday, but late in the second half against Florida had more fouls (three) than points (two).
He finished with four points, on one-of-nine shooting, and three rebounds.
“The ball didn’t go in the hoop as smoothly as it did (Friday). It’s always frustrating,” O’Quinn said. “When your season is on the line, your college career is on the line, it gets frustrating. That’s what happened tonight.”
The Spartans apparently convinced themselves they could win via 3-pointers. After making 10 of 19 against Mizzou, eight of their first 12 shots were from beyond the arc, and one hit the spot.
Meanwhile, O’Quinn received few touches in the early going as Florida’s defense made it difficult for him to establish position. The Gators pushed the entire Norfolk State offense away from the basket.
“They’re different type of athletes,” Evans said. “Having Irving Walker and guys get up and pressure you 94 feet is different than some of the other players we’ve played.”
Everything that went right for Norfolk State against Missouri was reversed against Florida. The Spartans made four of 24 3-pointers, shot 27 percent and were outrebounded 48-31.
But despite the disappointment, Evans was able to look at the big picture.
“Being to the tournament helps financially,” he said. “The exposure we received from Kyle and everything else will help our profile. We should be able to recruit a different type of athlete, so I think we’ll be able to compete and get back here.”