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No. 1 Gators start slowly against Albany

3/21/2014

ORLANDO -- Fourteen years ago, No. 5-seeded Florida needed a buzzer-beater in overtime to avoid being upset by No. 12-seeded Butler in the first round of the 2000 NCAA tournament.

Former Florida star Mike Miller's last-second leaner against Butler helped propel the Gators to the Final Four, where they lost to Michigan State 89-76 in the championship game in Indianapolis.

The Gators, the No. 1 overall seed in this year's NCAA tournament, didn't need another last-second miracle Thursday, but they had to work a lot harder than expected in a 67-55 win over No. 16 seed Albany in a second-round game of the South Region at Amway Center.

The Great Danes, who had to beat Mount St. Mary's 71-64 in a first-round game Tuesday night to earn a date against the Gators, made 10 of their first 15 shots, trailed by only six points at the half and then tied the score at 39 with about 14 minutes to play. Florida finally pulled away in the final 10 minutes to avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.

It was hardly the kind of NCAA debut the Gators wanted, but it was their 27th consecutive victory nonetheless. Florida coach Billy Donovan can only hope a closer-than-expected outcome has an effect on this team similar to the close win on the 2000 team.

"The point I made was that in 2000 we were dead in the water in a lot of ways against Butler," Donovan said. "Through that shot and that play, we had a chance to play for it all that year, and my point was that you can't really take anything for granted: a possession, a free throw, nothing. ... That team back there was like, 'Wow, this almost ended,' and it actually created a little bit more energy for our team the rest of the tournament."

The Gators, who haven't lost since a 65-64 defeat at Connecticut on Dec. 2, will certainly need more energy and effort in Saturday night's third-round game against No. 9 seed Pittsburgh. The Panthers walloped No. 8 seed Colorado 77-48 on Thursday. They're bigger, stronger and deeper than the Great Danes, who went 19-15 and finished fourth in the lightly regarded America East Conference.

"We didn't celebrate," Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin said.

For a team that rolled through the past 3 ½ months of the season, nothing seemed to come easy for Florida against Albany. The Gators shot only 3-for-12 on 3-pointers and had only one more assist (11) than turnovers (10). Meanwhile, the Great Danes didn't have much trouble breaking Florida's full-court press, and Albany point guard DJ Evans, a 5-foot-9 senior, scored 21 points on 6-for-12 shooting.

"The way we played -- both on offense and defense -- we weren't together and didn't get into a flow," Wilbekin said. "We all know as a team that we have to play together. We weren't getting it done. The way we played isn't going to cut it. We weren't executing on offense -- on the inside or the outside. We weren't really locked down on defense."

After the Great Danes tied the score at 39 on guard Peter Hooley's foul shot with 14:32 to play, the Gators scored the next nine points to break the game open.

"It's a blessing we get the opportunity to play another 40 minutes of basketball," said Gators center Patric Young, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. "But Coach Donovan was saying to us after the game that this isn't going to be enough to keep our season going. We just need to look at each other and say, 'We know that there's more inside of us and more that we need to give.' "

The Gators will certainly need a lot more against Pittsburgh on Saturday.