NEW YORK (AP) -- Dante Milligan made a touching and triumphant return to the arena he practically grew up in, and with a few encouraging words from his mother seated courtside, helped Massachusetts into the NIT championship.
The undersized post player had 17 points, 12 rebounds and made several blocks late, and the Minutemen defeated two-time defending NCAA champion Florida 78-66 on Tuesday night.
It was Milligan who made things happen in the second half, though, rallying UMass from a nine-point deficit after hearing his mother Ruby shout something -- he wouldn't say what -- a couple minutes after the break.
"That's for me to keep right here," Milligan said, pointing to his heart. "She yelled something that changed my whole focus for the game.
"She's been through so much trying to raise me and my brother when we were younger."
Milligan and his brother, Alonzo, were involved with Boys' Club of New York growing up, and their mentor worked in public relations at Madison Square Garden. Together they spent dozens of nights hanging out in the locker rooms and watching the New York Knicks.
Three years ago, Milligan's brother died in a random shooting in his old East Harlem neighborhood, and the Garden and Knicks established a scholarship fund in Alonzo's honor.
The older brother carries a tattoo on his arm that reads, "Enjoy life today. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow may never come."
He's sure enjoying his time in the NIT.
He scored a career-high 24 points in the tournament opener against Stephen F. Austin and had 13 to help the Minutemen rally from 22 down with 14:37 left to beat Syracuse in the quarterfinals.
"It kind of feels like destiny," Milligan said.
UMass (25-10) took its first lead since early in the game when Etienne Brower hit a 3-pointer with 9:49 left. Milligan scored a couple minutes later, then stuffed Walter Hodge at the other end, leading to another 3 from Brower and a 59-51 lead with 7:25 to go.
The Gators (24-12) never could get closer than six the rest of the way, ending a disappointing season with a lackluster finish miles away and far removed from the consecutive titles they won on college basketball's biggest stage.
Marreese Speights had 12 points and a career-high 18 rebounds for Florida, the first defending champ to miss the NCAA tournament since 1989. The sophomore wouldn't say whether he would enter the NBA draft, only that he'll discuss it with coach Billy Donovan and his family.
Star freshman Nick Calathes added 12 points on just 5-of-19 shooting, and Dan Werner had 11 points and 10 rebounds for the Gators, who were an abysmal 8-of-21 from the free-throw line -- something that bit them while they tried to rally in the closing minutes.
"We didn't shoot the ball particularly well," Donovan said. "I thought their speed and quickness on the perimeter caused us problems."
So did the Minutemen's experience.
UMass starts three fifth-year seniors, a junior and a sophomore. The Gators countered with a lineup entirely devoid of upperclassmen.
"The reason I thought we'd have a chance in this game was if our seniors showed some leadership," coach Travis Ford said. "These guys just have that never-die attitude."
The game was a matchup of coaches who both learned under Rick Pitino at Kentucky, Donovan as an assistant and Ford as the guard who led the Wildcats to the Final Four.
Like Donovan a year ago, when he flirted with a coaching vacancy in the NBA, Ford now has to face questions about his future. His name has already popped up for the opening at LSU, perhaps a chance to return to his roots in the Southeastern Conference.
His team was fortunate to be within 36-27 at the break, after a dreadful shooting performance uncharacteristic of the nation's eighth-highest scoring team. The Minutemen were 1-of-13 from beyond the arc and at one point went more than 12 minutes without a field goal.
Florida wasn't much better, though, twice turning the ball over on inbound plays -- gaffs more appropriate for November than the first day of April.
Forbes nearly brought the shooting slump to a merciful end with about 3 minutes to go, the ball rolling tantalizingly around the rim before popping out. A minute later he finally scored on a layup, and the Minutemen looked up to see they only trailed 30-25.
"We never worry about how we're shooting in the first half," Forbes said. "We went into the locker room knowing we were going to make a run."