Toughness down the stretch helps Gators, UConn

Updated: March 25, 2006, 4:10 AM ET
ESPN.com

TOUGH SKIN

MINNEAPOLIS -- At halftime Friday night in the Metrodome, Billy Donovan jumped on his Florida Gators.

Called them out for a faltering start against Georgetown. Called some of them out by name.

In years past, that would have been a suicidal maneuver for Donovan. He had too many pampered players with paper-thin skin who couldn't take a tail-chewing without wanting to call their daddy/AAU coach/prospective agent to cry about their draconian coach.

Not this Florida team. And that's a very big reason for why the Gators are one of eight teams still standing.

"I have coached guys -- probably a lot of coaches have -- where when it's not going well for them and the coach gets on them, they pout," Donovan said, without mentioning names. "They go into the jar and it's like you have to baby them to get them back.

"When I go after these guys in terms of challenging them, they take it on. I love that about this team. We have highly competitive guys who take on the challenge when we get on them."

Florida immediately responded to that challenge coming out of the locker room by scoring the first seven points of the half, making it clear that the Hoyas were in for a fight. This was a change.

The old Florida Gators were eliminated in each of the last five NCAA Tournaments by lower-seeded teams -- often without significant resistance. Not this third-seeded group, which wrestled past Georgetown 57-53 and advanced to an Elite Eight meeting with top-seeded Villanova.

Last time these two teams met, in the second round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament, the hard-edged ballers from 'Nova slapped this message into the Gators' tender skin: You're not tough enough for us.

That might not be the case anymore when they meet Sunday with the Final Four on the line.

These are your new Florida Gators -- tough physically, tough mentally, possessed of smaller egos and thicker hides than some of their recent predecessors.

They also seem to like each other demonstrably more than the last few Florida teams. The camaraderie and esprit de corps extended to the postgame interview podium, where a question to Joakim Noah about his play resulted in a salutation from Noah to this game's hero, Corey Brewer.

"First of all, I want to thank Corey Brewer for saving my butt, because I missed a wide-open one at the end," Noah said. "He gave me a great pass and I missed it, and that could have really lost the game."

It could have, because the Gators were down a point at the time. Then Brewer fortuitously flung in the biggest Florida shot since Mike Miller beat the buzzer and Butler in the 2000 NCAA Tournament, launching the Gators to their last Final Four.

After Noah missed that chippie, Al Horford kept the ball alive on the glass and Brewer came down with it. Brewer tried to slither to the basket, wound up between two Hoyas and flipped the ball from his hip as Brandon Bowman was yanking him to the floor.

Somehow, it went in with 23.5 seconds left. And one. Brewer made the free throw, and the Gators had the lead for good.

That was Florida's lucky bounce, which was preceded by one for Georgetown. Ashanti Cook banked in a straight-on jumper that gave the Hoyas their last lead, 53-52.

Luck stayed on Florida's side after the Brewer play. With Georgetown attempting its own game-winning inbounds play, after Villanova won earlier Friday night on one, Brewer tripped and fell. That left the man he was guarding, Darrell Owens, wide open at the top of the key for 3.

"In my mind, I saw the guy hit the three," Brewer said. "But luckily it came off [the rim]."

Al Horford then made the two free throws to ice the game.

"Sometimes it's crazy what these games come down to," Donovan said. "It's a play here, a bounce of the ball there. I've been on both sides of it."

Donovan's been on both sides of the toughness spectrum with his teams as well. He likes it better where he is now.

A wild night

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PHOTO OF THE DAY
Allan Ray
Elsa/Getty Images
Allan Ray rejoices after Villanova rallied from 16 down to stun Boston College in OT.
TODAY'S BEST
Player of the day
UConn's Marcus Williams, who had 26 points, eight assists and the game-icing steal in the 98-92 OT win over Washington. Williams also made all 11 of his free throw attempts and was responsible for UConn's last nine points in regulation with a layup and foul and two assists to Rashad Anderson for his crucial 3s.

Honor Roll
Jamaal Williams, Washington: 27 pts, 7 rebs (98-92 OT L to UConn)

Randy Foye, Villanova: 29 pts, 6 rebs, 3 assts (60-59 OT W over BC)

Craig Smith, BC: 14 pts, 14 rebs, 7 assts (60-59 OT L to 'Nova)

Folarin Campbell, George Mason: 16 pts, 4 rebs, 3 assts (63-55 W over WSU)

Joakim Noah, Florida: 15 pts, 10 rebs, 5 blks (57-53 W over G'town)

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
There are compliments that coaches regularly give opposing players: A guy might be a great shooter, rebounder or passer. He might be a gamer, with a high basketball IQ and a certain NBA future.

But UCLA coach Ben Howland took his praise of Memphis senior forward Rodney Carney to a whole new level Friday when revealing his admiration for Carney's athletic ability.

Said Howland: "I think if Darren Collison were to stand right there under the basket, (Carney) is one of those guys that could jump right over him," Howland said. "I'm sure he can. I'm talking about doing the split leg thing and going right over a 6-footer. He could probably go over a 7-footer."

Where's Mars Blackmon when you need him? Howland said and UCLA assistant Ernie Zeigler were talking the night before and Zeigler predicted that Carney will win the NBA slam dunk contest next season.

"I can't even imagine how far he can take off from," Howland said. "He's like he's flying. He defies gravity."

-- Wayne Drehs

STATS OF THE DAY
5 -- The number of combined points scored by the benches in Florida's 57-53 win over Georgetown.

12.5 -- The percentage of 3-point shots converted by Wichita State in its 63-55 loss to George Mason. The Shockers shot 3-for-24 from the arc.

TODAY'S TAKES
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Wojciechowski: UConn wins again ... somehow
Neither its coach nor the opposing players could totally explain how UConn escaped again in the NCAAs. Story

March Madness blog
Wayne Drehs has the latest buzz from the Oakland region and more from around the tournament. Story Insider

Sweet 16 photo gallery
Take a look at the best pictures from a great day at the regionals. Gallery

SATURDAY LOOKAHEAD
Drehs: Moute kicks boute
UCLA's Luc Richard Mbah a Moute grew up eating snakes and idolizing M.J., and the freshman is doing his best Jordan impression in the tourney. Story

Katz: Contenders again
Texas has gone from contender to pretender back to title contender, and the Longhorns have enjoyed the ride. Story