RALEIGH, N.C. (AP)—The little team from the Big Apple was every bit as good as promised.
Led by 26 points from hotshot guard Luis Flores, 12th-seeded Manhattan defeated fifth-seeded Florida 75-60 in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday—an “upset” that really wasn’t much of an upset at all.
“I know America’s going to look at it as an upset, but behind closed doors we don’t,” Manhattan forward Dave Holmes said. “We know we can play with any team on any night.”
Barely beaten in the first round last year by eventual champion Syracuse, Manhattan (25-5) won its first tournament game since defeating Oklahoma in 1995. The Jaspers advanced to play Wake Forest, a 79-78 winner over Virginia Commonwealth, in the second round of the East Rutherford Regional.
Clearly, the Demon Deacons will have their hands full.
Coach Bobby Gonzalez, celebrating his 40th birthday, insisted there was no way his Jaspers—who play in 2,500-seat Draddy Gymnasium that’s actually in the Bronx—would feel overwhelmed in the big tournament against a big-time team from the Southeastern Conference.
He was right.
“I told the guys that we’re in a 5-12 matchup, we’re playing an epic team like Florida, this is going to be considered a major upset,” Gonzalez said. “But I told them if you come in worried about the name on the other jersey, you really don’t have a chance.”
And really, the name “Florida” doesn’t seem so daunting anymore.
The Gators (20-11), ranked first in the country in December, failed to make it out of the first weekend of the tourney for the fourth straight time since they made the national finals in 2000.
They were thought far and wide to be one of the most vulnerable favorites in the opening round and they played the role perfectly, missing open shots, never getting into a flow on offense and letting Manhattan’s pesky, pressing defense get into both their minds and their games.
Coach Billy Donovan tore into his players, citing their lack of competitiveness for the lopsided loss.
“I don’t know if them wanting it more is the right word,” Donovan said. “But when you look at the rebounding, the way our frontcourt played, the thing that keeps showing up is, their guys competed better than we did.”
Manhattan’s domination started with Flores.
Creating, shooting and scoring from everywhere on the floor, the generously listed 6-foot senior showed why he’s the nation’s fifth-leading scorer.
With the Jaspers ahead 38-35 early in the second half, he sandwiched two 3-pointers around a sweet, pull-up 16-footer to push the lead to double digits. The first 3 came right after a timeout, on a defensive breakdown by Florida that left Flores wide open.
“I don’t know how something like that can happen,” Donovan said.
Florida tried to get back in it, but when Matt Walsh got called for an intentional foul—a questionable call on a hard shot on Mike Konovelchick in which Walsh actually blocked the layup attempt—the Jaspers started an 11-4 run to put the game away. It was capped by Flores’ beautiful spin move on the baseline that left him open for a 15-foot jumper he made.
Flores was hardly Manhattan’s only star. Peter Mulligan finished with 17 points and Holmes had 12 points and 12 rebounds. That pair of undersized forwards easily dominated the inside matchup Florida thought it could win.
Florida’s best inside player, David Lee, was barely a factor with seven points. The Gators tried to work inside to 6-9 Adrian Moss, but he went 2-for-8.
The picture of Florida’s futility was best told during Flores’ hot streak early in the second half: Walsh shot an airball on an open 3-pointer, Moss shot an airball from the post and on Florida’s next possession, Moss got called for a charge after driving his shoulder into the defender.
Walsh finished with 13 points for the Gators. Anthony Roberson led them with 22 points, but most came after the game was out of reach and Donovan’s team was guaranteed of falling to 2-4 in the tournament over the last four seasons.