Prather leads Florida past Virginia

OMAHA, Neb. -- Casey Prather arrived at the CenturyLink Center Friday as a seldom-used reserve averaging 2 points for Florida’s basketball team.

Hours later, the sophomore forward stood before national television cameras for a postgame interview while thousands of members of Gator Nation saluted him with cheers from the stands.

Prather scored a career-high 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting to vault Florida to a 71-45 victory over Virginia in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Prather played 22 minutes -- 13 above his average -- in a win that catapulted the Gators into Sunday’s thrid-round game against either Missouri or Norfolk State.

“If there is anyone on our team that deserves to have success, it’s him,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said of Prather. “I have been around so many young players [who] don’t get a chance to play and sulk and have no resiliency to come back the next day and work.

“I can tell you this, whether he has played two minutes, not gotten in the game or 15, he is the same kid every day. I personally am happy for him because he has stayed the course as a player and tried to figure out how to get better and how to improve. He gave us a huge lift.”

As convincing as Florida’s victory was, the game certainly didn’t start out pretty for the Gators. Donovan’s squad fell behind 10-2 and missed its first 15 3-pointers. Florida battled back and led 30-22 at halftime.

In the second half Florida used a full-court press to wear down a Virginia squad that has battled depth and injury issues all season.

The Gators shot 69.6 percent after intermission.

“I think (the press) had a huge affect on the game,” Florida guard Erving Walker said. “We were struggling to score a little bit in the beginning and I think that opened things up and put us into an offensive rhythm.”

Florida was held to a season-low four 3-pointers against Virginia, but the Gators more than made up for that inside the arc.

Donovan’s squad was 24-for-30 from 2-point range. That’s 80 percent -- it’s best effort in 47 NCAA tournament games.

Bradley Beal also had 14 points and 11 rebounds for Florida while Patric Young added 13 points. But the story of the day was Prather, who hopes Friday’s performance was the beginning of something special.

“I felt like if I kept working at it in practice and in individual instruction with the coaches that my time would come,” Prather said. “I guess tonight was a good time for that to happen.”