ORLANDO (AP) — There never came a point when top-seeded Florida looked or felt comfortable against Albany.
The Great Danes made 10 of their first 15 shots, swapped the lead back and forth early and even had the Gators reeling late.
If not for a 4-minute stretch midway through the second half, the Danes might be the talk of the NCAA tournament. Instead, they’re just the latest 16 seed to give a 1 seed trouble.
DJ Evans had 21 points and seven rebounds, but didn’t get enough help in a 67-55 loss to Florida in the South Region on Thursday.
“Very few people gave us a chance,” said coach Will Brown, whose 11-year-old son even asked if Albany was going to get killed. “If we didn’t come here to win, we should have got on that plane in Dayton and went right back to Albany. A 16 is going to beat a 1 at some point, and we wanted to be that team.”
Gary Johnson added 13 points for the Danes (19-15), and John Puk had 10 points before fouling out with 1:27 to play. Leading scorer Peter Hooley finished with six points on 1-fot-10 shooting, and Sam Rowley also struggled (1-for-8) from the field.
The loss dropped 16 seeds to 0-117 against 1 seeds since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
So many of those were over by halftime. This one, though, was far from a lopsided affair.
The first half couldn’t have gone much better for Albany, which was back on the court less than 48 hours after the program’s first NCAA tournament win. The Danes beat Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, and gave Florida (33-2) fits despite the tight turnaround.
“We just had the mentality that it doesn’t matter what it is on the front of the jersey,” said Evans, who briefly left the court after getting kicked in the face. “The name doesn’t mean anything. You just have to go out there, just play the game, and that’s what we did.”
Albany did an impressive job breaking Florida’s press. And Brown had a clear game plan on defense: Don’t let sharp-shooter Michael Frazier II get any clean looks from 3-point range, beg swingman Casey Prather to take jumpers, sag in the post on center Patric Young and mix up defenses from possession to possession. Box and one. Triangle and two. Zone. Man to man. Albany used it all.
It worked — nearly to perfection.
“I knew they were going to junk the game up,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Frazier was scoreless in the first half, Prather turned into a jump shooter and Young was missing early on.
But Donovan adjusted, like he’s done so many other times this season, and got Florida rolling. Wilbekin started driving and dishing, creating easy baskets for Young and Finney-Smith at the rim. Finney-Smith had six consecutive points that seemed to get the Southeastern Conference champs going, and Prather followed with a three-point play that riled up the pro-Florida crowd.
Florida’s final 10 baskets of the first half were in the paint.
But the Gators didn’t really get going until a 9-0 run — spearheaded by defense — midway through the second half. Young started it with a three-point play. Kasey Hill followed with a driving layup and then added two free throws after a turnover. Will Yeguete got another steal, and Dorian Finney-Smith’s emphatic dunk capped the spurt.
It was exactly what Florida needed, and it probably kept Albany from pulling off the most elusive upset in college hoops.
“Well, let’s face it. We had nothing to lose,” Brown said. “Our program has been in these situations. … We came here to win. I know a lot of people smile about that and think this coach is crazy, these kids are crazy. We came here to win. We believed we could win. We wanted to be the first 16 to beat a 1. That was our mentality.”
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