By Matt Watts, McClatchy Newspapers –
PHOENIX — Marquette slapped, pushed and attempted to manhandle Florida. The Gators defended, frustrated and outhustled Marquette.
In the end, hustle and defense won.
The No. 7 seed Gators (26-10) have played their way into a second consecutive berth in the Elite Eight after a 68-58 victory over the third-seeded Golden Eagles (27-8) on Thursday night in Phoenix.
Florida advances to play No. 4 seed Louisville on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. for a chance to make a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans.
In the buildup to the game, Marquette forward and Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder questioned Florida’s ability on the defensive end, and that proved to be a mistake.
UF allowed an average of 47.5 points in its first two tournament wins against Virginia and Norfolk State, and the team continued its defensive dominance against a high-scoring, fast-paced Marquette squad.
The Gators held the Golden Eagles to 30 points on 31.4 percent shooting in the first half, and just one point more than their season-low of 57.
A frenetic first 4:26 saw Marquette establish a quick 9-4 lead with a significant physical presence inside and ability to get up and down the floor — attributes that made the Golden Eagles a savvy Final Four pick even before Missouri and Michigan State were upset.
Marquette held close throughout the first half with its rebounding, pulling down an 9-5 advantage on the offensive glass which was good for 13 second-chance points compared to just two for Florida.
But the Gators fought back, establishing a team-wide identity for pulling down the rebounds as seven players had three or more rebounds. Florida closed the half on a 9-0 run to establish a 36-30 lead at the break, finally pulling away for their biggest lead of the half thanks to five points and an assist from standout freshman Brad Beal and a breakaway from Kenny Boynton.
The Gators outrebounded the Eagles 6-2 during the span. Although Florida began cold from field, missing its first four from beyond the arc and making just 2 of its first 10 shots before the first media timeout, the Gators shot well from that point on, finishing 24 of 59 from the field and 7 of 27 from beyond the arc.
Open looks became more prevalent the more the Gators got the Golden Eagles running, and Florida took advantage, continuing its first-half run into the final half and establishing a 14-point lead nearly seven minutes into the second half.
Marquette got back into with six consecutive points to cut the lead to 48-40 while holding Florida scoreless for more than four minutes.
Erik Murphy, who finished with seven points and 10 boards, ended the drought with a tough inside bucket — the type of uncharacteristic play Florida made all game. Shots weren’t falling all night for Crowder, who finished 5 of 15 from the field for 15 points.
He dealt with foul trouble throughout and had multiple shots rattle in and out, as did the entire Marquette lineup. Marquette made a late run to bring the game as close as 58-52 with 3:18 left, but a three from Erving Walker over Todd Mayo with 2:07 remaining extended Florida’s lead to nine and put the finishing touches on the team’s 26th and most important victory to date.