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OF ALL THE GYM JOINTS, IN ALL THE TOWNS, in all the world: In the first round of the NCAA tournament, South Alabama happened to draw Florida, setting the stage for an unlikely meeting between members of the same coaching family. Love and basketball. That was the subtext of the opening-round game in Jacksonville.
The relationship between South Alabama coach John Pelphrey and his Florida counterpart, Billy Donovan, dated to 1989 when Donovan, then 23, joined the staff of Kentucky as a graduate assistant under coach Rick Pitino. At the time Pelphrey was a 6' 7" sophomore who would go on to become a Wildcats captain, part of a memorable group of players who helped will the program back to respectability after probation and mass transfers had left it in disarray. Both he and Donovan were part of the epic battle with Duke at the 1992 East Regional final (see Laettner, Christian), and their college ties have bound them for more than a decade since. When Donovan took the head coaching job at Marshall in 1994, Pelphrey signed on as his assistant, and the pair headed for Gainesville two years later. After a six-year run as Donovan's assistant (the Gators went 124-65 during that stretch), Pelphrey took the South Alabama job in March 2002. So close are the families that Ann-Marie Grace Donovan Pelphrey, the six-year-old daughter of John and wife Tracy, is named after the Florida coach. "Outside my father," Pelphrey said on the eve of the tournament, "he's probably the most influential male in my life."
While the Pelphrey-Donovan angle added something sexy to a first-round matchup, Florida's recent tournament r�sum� was decidedly sour. The Gators had been eliminated by a lower seed in every tournament since 2000, and after the first 20 minutes against the 14th-seeded Jaguars, it looked as if Florida's stay might be short once again. Despite a huge advantage inside (junior forward Jason McGriff was the only player on South Alabama's roster taller than 6' 7", compared with six for the Gators), Florida only led 31-25 at the half. The Gators' poor shot selection--half of Florida's shots (15 of 30) were taken from behind the arc--prompted a rebuke from Donovan. "I went off pretty good at halftime," he said. "I was getting frustrated watching balls go up from the three-point line when guys are standing in the post with a 6' 6" guy guarding them. They finally got the message."
Florida took a 48-34 lead with 11:42 to play and never looked back in a 26-point victory. Sophomore forwards Joakim Noah (16 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, three steals and a Florida tournament-record five blocks) and Al Horford (14 points and 13 rebounds) wreaked havoc in the second half, and the attention given to the post players opened space for junior guard Lee Humphrey, who scored 20 points. " Florida hasn't made it out of the first weekend in a few years," Humphrey told reporters afterward, "but we're also aware that this is a new year and this year is not determined by what happened in past years."
With the Pelphrey story line in the rearview mirror, Florida would next be going up against history. If the Gators could get past No. 11 seed Wisconsin- Milwaukee, they would reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000. But the Horizon League champions posed challenges. The Panthers' starting lineup consisted entirely of fifth-year seniors, a group that had already upset Oklahoma by eight points in the opening round. But unlike in the first half of the South Alabama game, the Gators were sharp from the start and never trailed. Sophomore forward Corey Brewer finished with 23 points in 23 minutes (and that was despite falling on his head and sitting out the final 11:20 of the first half). Noah's line was the stuff of fantasy basketball (17 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four blocks). The Gators shot 53.6% from the field, and tough post defense held Wisconsin- Milwaukee's leading scorer, Joah Tucker, to just nine points on 4-of-14 shooting. Florida led 34-26 at the half and then rode Brewer to the finish. Over the final 20 minutes he scored 15 points.
Asked afterward about the Gators' previous postseason failures, Brewer focused only on the road ahead. "We don't care about that," Brewer told The Miami Herald. "It's just about moving on. We're moving on, and this feels great. This is about this year and this year's team. We want to leave our own legacy."
[This article contains tables. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Percentages: FG: .345, FT: .500.
Percentages: FG: .492, FT: .800.