Florida 65, Butler 57
ST. LOUIS (AP)—Al Horford and Joakim Noah had small spots of blood speckled across their shirts and shorts—remnants of Butler’s aggressive, physical play.
For Florida’s big men, the red dots were a reminder of how tough it can be to try to repeat as national champions.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes,” Horford said.
They might have to, because if the top-seeded Gators are going to win consecutive NCAA titles, it seems they’re going to do it the hard way.
Horford had 16 points, seven rebounds and a key block in the final minute to help the top-seeded Gators overcome another slow start and hold off undersized Butler 65-57 Friday night.
Florida (32-5), trying to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to win consecutive national titles, advanced to the Midwest Regional final Sunday against Oregon. The Ducks beat UNLV 76-72.
“Teams are going to play you a lot different when you’re the defending national champions, and we’re aware of that,” Horford said.
The Gators trailed by as many as nine points and never found their comfort zone against the scrappy Bulldogs.
But they took control in the final two minutes—thanks mostly to Horford. The 6-foot-10 forward converted a three-point play with 2:34 remaining, then blocked a shot with 16.3 seconds to play.
Playing from behind was nothing new for Florida, at least not in this year’s tournament.
The Gators, who won six tournament games last year by an average of 16 points, have had more rough spots than expected in the first three rounds.
They trailed No. 16 seed Jackson State by five points early and were up just six at halftime before pulling away. They got behind by seven against Purdue in the first half and were down 33-29 early in the second.
Horford was the difference-maker against Purdue, and he did most of the damage against fifth-seeded Butler (29-7), too.
It culminated with his post move against Brandon Crone. Horford banged into him several times, backing down the whole way, then hit a close-range shot and drew a foul. Horford made the free throw, putting the Gators ahead 57-54 with 2:34 to play.
He may have been even more impressive a few minutes later. Florida was up 61-55 with 19 seconds remaining when Horford blocked Julian Betko’s layup attempt.
“Al came up huge for us again—on both ends of the court,” teammate Taurean Green said.
Horford got plenty of help, too.
Corey Brewer hit a baseline jumper with 1:43 remaining that made it 59-54. Brewer later made two free throws and finished with 11 points.
Green made five 3-pointers and had 17 points. Noah finished with 13 points and nine rebounds, and was 9-of-11 from the free throw line.
Noah and Horford—3 inches taller than any of their opponents—made the most of their size advantage. They drew fouls and went a combined 17-of-21 from the line. They also had five blocks.
“We couldn’t do it without fouling, and that’s what got us,” Butler coach Todd Lickliter said. “If you tried to double, you weren’t comfortable doubling off people. I think Horford is a terrific passer if you double him off the catch. He’s unselfish and he finds his teammates.”
Butler had two players foul out, and Mike Green had two teeth knocked loose by Noah. But the Bulldogs hung tough with tight defense and savvy.
Pete Campbell led Butler with 14 points. Green finished with 12, and A.J. Graves had 11—all in the second half. Green and Graves, though, were a combined 1-of-9 from 3-point range and had five assists and four turnovers.
The Bulldogs might have made had a chance late if not for three missed free throws—uncharacteristic for Lickliter’s squad, which made nine in a row to start the game.
Mike Green missed two with 2:13 to play, then Graves, a 95-percent shooter, missed one with 1:29 remaining. Butler got the rebound on Graves’ miss, but made just one more basket the rest of the way.
Florida was 6-of-6 from the stripe in the final 35 seconds.
“They’re a heck of a team,” Campbell said. “They exploited some things and made things happen. Their posts are pretty good. I’d seen them on TV—now I know how good they are firsthand.”
Butler dictated the pace most of the way, milking the clock, making Florida defend for long possessions and getting open outside shots.
It worked early, too.
The Bulldogs used a 10-0 run—all scored by Brandon Crone—to take a 14-6 lead, then pushed it to nine points on several occasions. Campbell had back-to-back 3-pointers—the second one making it 25-16 with 8:42 remaining in the half.
Butler went cold from there, at least until the second half.
Florida, meanwhile, settled into a groove offensively and defensively.
But the Gators still didn’t take over until the final minutes.
“We didn’t come here just to give them a scare,” Mike Green said. “We wanted to win. A loss is a loss. It hurts.”