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Florida battles Louisville for spot in Final Four

March 24, 2012

The student takes on the teacher in the West Regional Final this afternoon, as Billy Donovan and the Florida Gators collide with Rick Pitino and the Louisville Cardinals for the right to advance to the Final Four of the 74th annual NCAA Tournament in New Orleans next week.

Donovan, who has guided the Gators to a record of 28-9 in this event since landing in Gainesville back in 1996, not only played for Pitino at Providence back in the 1980s, but he also joined his mentor's coaching staff at Kentucky for a five-year run so there is considerable depth to the relationship between the two head coaches in this contest. Proving that Pitino's guidance was of the utmost importance for Donovan, the latter used what he had learned to lead the Gators to the NCAA Championship in both 2006 and 2007.

The seventh seed in the region, Florida entered the tournament after having lost to Kentucky during the SEC Tournament (74-71), but has not missed a beat since. Lopsided victories over Virginia (71-45) and Norfolk State (84-50) sent the Gators to the Sweet 16 for the seventh time overall and the sixth with Donovan at the helm. It certainly didn't hurt that UF became the first program in tournament history to score at least 70 points and limit the competition to 50 or fewer in its first two games of the tournament.

Even though Florida had lost both previous matchups against Marquette in the all-time series, the team came ready to battle with another strong defensive effort that resulted in a 68-58 victory late Thursday night in the round of 16, setting up the battle between these two coaches which is sure to garner almost as much attention as the actual game itself.

Meanwhile the Cardinals, winners of the NCAA title in both 1980 and 1986 and now with a record of 63-39 all-time in the tourney, they made it to the Sweet 16 by taking care of both Davidson (69-62) and New Mexico (59-56) in games that were considerably closer than those logged by Florida. The good news for fourth-seeded Louisville was that Pitino entered Thursday night's game in Phoenix with an unblemished record in nine previous appearances in the round of 16 and that dominance continued against top-seeded Michigan State in an awkward 57-44 triumph for the underdogs.

Pitino, who was the first coach to take three different schools (Louisville, Kentucky, Providence) to the Final Four, is appearing in the tournament for the 17th time where he has a record of 41-15 and captured the national title with his 1995-96 Kentucky squad with players that Donovan had a hand in recruiting.

In terms of the all-time series between these two influential schools, the Cardinals have won all but one of the eight matchups that took place between 1969 and 2004. The most recent meeting was a 74-70 triumph for the Cardinals in December of 2004. Even though Donovan holds the advantage in national titles over his former head coach, Pitino has never lost to his protege, posting a record of 6-0 overall, with two of those victories coming with the coaches at both of their current schools.

The winner of this epic meeting will take on the representative from the South Region in the Big Easy for the right to play for the national championship.

The defense took center stage for the Gators on Thursday night as the squad held Marquette to a mere 30.8 percent shooting from the floor and 28.6 percent behind the three-point line, en route to their second straight appearance in the Elite Eight. Bradley Beal led all scorers with 21 points for Florida, adding six rebounds, four assists and a pair of blocked shots as he connected on all but two of his 10 field goal attempts in the meeting. Also scoring in double figures were Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton with 11 points apiece, as the squad survived some shaky shooting of its own out on the perimeter (7- of-27). Through 36 games, the Gators still have five players averaging in double figures, chief among them being Boynton with his 16.0 ppg as he makes good on 41.1 percent from three-point range. Beal (14.8 ppg), Walker (12.1 ppg) and Erik Murphy (10.4 ppg) have all made it a priority to become long-distance threats and have each nailed at least 57 triples so far this season. Generating 76.1 ppg as they outscore the competition by more than 11 ppg, the Gators have used the three-point shot to carry them this far, leading the nation with 9.7 conversions per game and having made good on at least 10 triples in 22 contests this season, the most in any campaign under Donovan.

As was the case with the Gators in the nightcap, the defense for Louisville was crucial in sending the squad to the Elite Eight for the third time under Pitino. The Cardinals held top-seeded Michigan State to a mere five points through more than nine minutes to begin the meeting and continued to frustrate the Spartans at every turn. Applying much of the pressure was Gorgui Dieng who tied a school NCAA Tournament record with seven blocked shots, his presence on the interior also resulting in nine rebounds which tied Chane Behanan for the most on the squad. Speaking of Behanan, he was nowhere to be found in the first half and then erupted for 15 points after the break to help push the offense. Russ Smith generated another 11 points as the team survived just 38.2 percent shooting from the floor and 6-of-11 at the free-throw line. While he scored just four points on 2-of-9 shooting, Peyton Siva was able to contribute with nine assists. Siva (9.1 ppg) isn't so much a scorer these days as he is a facilitator, having delivered 200 of the unit's 514 assists on the season. Instead, it is up to Kyle Kuric (12.9 ppg) and Russ Smith (11.4 ppg) to take care of most of the scoring burden, although it doesn't hurt to have someone like Behanan (9.3, 7.4 rpg) or Dieng (9.2 ppg, 9.1 rpg) to chip in from time to time.

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