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When FLORIDA LOST ITS FINAL THREE ROAD GAMES of the regular season, the team and its followers provided a bevy of explanations. Joakim Noah, the Gators' loquacious junior forward, came up with perhaps the best. It was a bad "spell," he said, which suggested both an illness that Florida could shake but also a hex that could ultimately doom them.
Noah was not the only one hinting at troubles before the Gators' first-round game against Jackson State in New Orleans. After a 13-point loss at Vanderbilt on Feb. 17, coach Billy Donovan said his team needed "growing and developing." Then came a 10-point loss at undermanned LSU, which prompted center Al Horford to say he was "worried" for the team. That was followed by a 10-point loss at Tennessee on Feb. 27 and Noah's suggestion that Florida might be suffering from "media poison."
Noah's pretournament divulgence that his favorite movie from last year was Apocalypto, which chronicled, of all things, the end of a civilization, seemed the final harbinger, and thus there was unusual concern over 16th-seeded Jackson State.
For a No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed, the favorite would have to fall victim to lethargy, and that is exactly what worried Gators fans and exactly what Florida did in the first half. The Gators missed their first 10 outside shots. They committed 10 turnovers, and the guard trio of Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey and Walter Hodge combined to shoot 0 for 10 from the field and 0 for 9 from three-point range. In all, Florida made only one of 13 three-pointers in the first half and also missed eight free throws. The Gators led 41?35 at the intermission, but that didn't soften the feeling that boredom might undo Florida. "To think that you're going to walk into this tournament and beat people with ease.... [It] is just not going to happen," Donovan said. "Maybe [the players] got a little bit ahead of themselves."
They were in the moment, however, to start the second half. Humphrey made a three-pointer, then, after a Noah layup, Corey Brewer made a three-pointer of his own. A Jackson State timeout did little to slow the momentum as Humphrey's second three-pointer and a putback by Noah highlighted a 17?6 run that set the game out of reach. The Gators shot 69% in the second half, with only two turnovers. Six players scored in double figures, including Brewer with 21 and Noah with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Florida's rebounding edge (62?19) was the largest in NCAA tournament history and its margin of victory (43 points) the largest of any opening-round game.
"You have a lot of energy going through you when it's the NCAA tournament. We were ready; I think a little too ready," Brewer said of the first half. "But we settled down, and we're fine."
With their opening game out of the way, the Gators directed their attention to becoming the first defending champion to reach the Sweet 16 since Syracuse in 2004. They would need to defeat No. 9 Purdue and coach Matt Painter, who in his second season had revitalized the Boiler-makers' program.
Going into the game, Painter laid out a framework for the upset to his players. He knew Purdue would get killed inside if Florida got into its offense and fed the ball to Horford, Noah and reserve Chris Richard. He also knew the Boilermakers' greatest strength was the speed of their guards, particularly Tarrance Crump's. So, he had Crump and others pressure Green up top, forcing the ball out of his hands and not allowing the Gators to direct the game inside. The telling statistics, Painter said, would be turnovers and rebounds. If Purdue could create enough turnovers to offset what would likely be a sizable rebounding disadvantage, it might have a chance.
Though the Boilermakers were considerably smaller (6' 7" Carl Landry was the tallest player in their rotation), they were quicker to loose balls from the start and, amazingly, held the rebounding edge and the lead, 31?29, at the end of the first half. The stars of the first 20 minutes were not Florida's future NBA millionaires but Purdue freshman guard Chris Kramer—who scored seven points on jump shots—and Crump, who blew past Green for eight points in only 10 minutes. The Gators' offense consisted of scattered attempts far from the hoop, made only eight of 22 shots (36.4%) and committed six turnovers.
"They pressured us and never let us get into our sets," Green said. "At the half [ Donovan] told us to slow down, to be strong with the ball and get into our offense. We had to make them guard us [inside]."