Billy Donovan's Florida Gators shut down Jae Crowder and Marquette Thursday night 68-58 to move on to the Elite Eight for the second time in as many years.
Stealing the show was Gator Bradley Beal, who had 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting. A high school national player of the year, Beal has been pushed by Donovan to be more assertive on the floor, especially after Florida lost four of five heading into the NCAA tournament.
"He doesn't want to step on toes; he's very aware of his place on the team," Donovan said, in explaining Beal's gradual acceptance of leading his team. "You can't do anything but love him because of the way he handles himself."
On Thursday night, I would say Beal handled himself pretty well. The freshman also had six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots–one over Crowder late in the game–to seal the win.
Crowder, a senior and the Big East player of the year, never got into his flow. He finished with 15 points, but only on 5-for-15 shooting, and had to sit out most of the first half due to foul trouble. Senior, Darius Johnson-Odom also shot 5-for-15, only dropping 14 points.
"We struggled being in rhythm most of the game," coach Buzz Williams said. "Jae has always played more than 12 minutes in a half, but it's dangerous for him to pick up his third, so he sat a lot the half. When you're playing against a team as good as Florida and you're playing without your key guys, it's hard for that rhythm to get established."
Next up for Donovan's seventh-seeded Florida (26-10) is the West Regional Final against Rick Pitino and fourth-seeded Louisville (29-9) on Saturday.
"Obviously, I've said that outside of my parents, he's the most influential person in my life," Donovan said in regards to Pitino.
Donovan was the undersized, scrappy guard who helped lead Pitino and his Providence team to the Final Four back in 1987. A few years later, Donovan went against his mentor's advice by quitting a job on Wall Street to join Pitino as an assistant. Since going off on his own, Donovan has won two national championships and been to the Final Four three times, while Pitino has one championship and five Final Fours to his resume.
Pitino, however, is 6-0 against his former mentoree.
"These are hard games, because they're such close relationships," Donovan said. "But I do think the game is really about players playing in the game who are going to be competing on Saturday."
Louisville didn't have much trouble against Michigan State, outscoring the Spartans 57-44 for their right to move on to the West Final.
In fact, Michigan State's 44 points Thursday night was the lowest point total by a No. 1 seed in the history of the tournament since the shot clock era.
"They disrupted us a little bit and we didn't have enough guys who could play well," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
And just like Donovan had a weapon in his Florida team with Beal, Pitino had his weapon against Michigan State: Gorgui Dieng.
Dieng matched the school record for blocked shots in an NCAA tournament game, with seven. And when he wasn't blocking shots, he was altering them at the very least, with defense the entire night that was described as 'stifling.'
""He was very disruptive," Michigan State's Draymond Green said. "We're not going to back down from anyone. We took it at him. He pulled off some great blocked shots. That's what he does. That's his strength."
"When we came here, we know (what) we're going to face," said Dieng, who also dropped five points, nine boards and three steals. "We knew we were going to come to a war. We need to be tougher than them to win this game."
Now Pitino and his Louisville team will begin another war on Saturday for the right to the Final Four. If Donovan truly wants to defeat his former mentor for the first time, you can be sure the Gators will be ready.
Photo Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Josh Helmuth is the sports editor and lead baseball writer for CraveOnline Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @Jhelmuth.