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March 26, 2011Butler has lived off of close wins in consecutive deep NCAA Tournament runs, but it may die with the same approach against Florida. The Gators have been every bit as tough as the Bulldogs in tight situations this year, winning nine of their last 10 games decided by six points or fewer or in overtime.
Something has to give today when the two teams meet in the Southeast Regional final at the New Orleans Arena.
Eighth-seeded Butler (26-9) scored on a put-back at the buzzer to beat Old Dominion in the first round. The Bulldogs ran a beautiful play to get a go-ahead layup against Pittsburgh in the final seconds of the second round before a pair of bizarre fouls made everyone forget anything that happened earlier.
Second-seeded Florida (29-7) outscored UCLA 7-0 in the last 1:15 of a 73-65 victory in the second round. The Gators blitzed BYU 15-6 in overtime on Thursday in the Sweet 16.
Florida returned all five starters from its NCAA Tournament team in 2010 and starts three seniors - Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. Butler returned almost everyone but Horizon League Player of the Year Gordon Hayward from the team that lost to Duke in the NCAA championship game.
"Our experience helped us out a lot," Tyus said. "We've been in a lot of close games this year and even last year, and we just try to fight together and stay together and help each other and pull off close games."
The Gators have played with poise and panache down the stretch, a quality that starts during late-game timeouts.
"We come together and grind it out in the huddles," Macklin said. "Chandler does a lot of talking. After coach (Billy) Donovan and the coaching staff speak, we just get in the huddle again and talk amongst each other. We want to go out there and play as hard as we can and fight until the horn goes off."
Both teams anticipate another nail-biter today as Florida tries to improve to 5-0 all-time in Elite 8 games and Butler attempts to reach the Final Four for the second consecutive year. The mutual respect is clear.
"They have a great frontcourt, and then their backcourt is unbelievable," Butler guard Ronald Nored said. "Chandler Parsons is probably one of the most versatile players in the country. It's going to be a heck of a game and a heck of a match up."
Florida overwhelmed BYU at times with its size and athletic ability inside, but the Bulldogs match up better with the Gators. They out rebounded the nation's leading rebounding team, Old Dominion, in the first round. Forward Matt Howard, the 2009-2010 Horizon League Player of the Year, averages team highs of 16.8 points and 7.6 rebounds. Center Andrew Smith adds 8.9 points and 5.4 rebounds.
"Matt Howard is very difficult to guard," Parsons said. "He's one of the most physical players in the country and he plays smart and just relentless. He's got a really good motor. He just battles for 40 minutes, and you're not going to get anything easy with him because his effort is off the charts."
Neither team was sharp offensively in the Sweet 16. Butler went 5 of 18 from 3-point range against Wisconsin after sinking 12 of 27 treys against Pittsburgh in the second round. Florida launched a season-high 34 3-pointers against BYU - nine more than it had tried in any other game this year - and went 7 of 29 on those shots after hitting four in a row early.
Still, the Gators executed when it mattered most, scoring on eight of nine overtime possessions. Butler can't count on producing more late-game magic as it tries to become Cinderella for the second consecutive year.
"This year we're doing a better job of staying focused, keeping our composure and understanding what's there on offense and not forcing anything," Parsons said. "We understand that when we need to get a stop, we step up and get a stop together. We're just very confident at the end of games and very comfortable in those situations."