AUSTIN — We still don’t know if Florida, the SEC regular-season champion, truly is worthy of its No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.That will remain a point of contention until the Gators prove they can win a game by a single-digit margin.Florida remains winless in such games this season, hardly the type of stat that suggests long-term staying power in a tournament that usually requires multiple narrow escapes by the team that cuts down the nets at the Final Four.Heck, the Gators weren’t even the most impressive team from their home state Friday night. That honor had to go to Florida Gulf Coast, an NCAA newbie that took down No. 2 Georgetown in its tournament debut.But the Gators were good enough to splatter Northwestern (La.) State, holding the nation’s highest-scoring team to its lowest-scoring night of the season in a 79-47 romp at the Erwin Center.And that victory keeps Florida on pace to play next week at Cowboys Stadium, where the Gators could meet … well, Florida Gulf Coast. Or maybe Michigan.But that is next week’s issue. Before arriving in Arlington, the Gators will have to get past the winner of Friday’s late game between UCLA and Minnesota.To keep advancing along the path to Atlanta, where the Gators (27-7) hope to improve on back-to-back Elite Eight finishes in the past two NCAA Tournaments, you’ve got to think Florida will have to win a close game. Eventually.No team in today’s college game blows through a six-game NCAA Tournament run without having some opponent come within 10 points, does it? The knee-jerk response is: “Absolutely not.”But if the Gators can continue stacking blowouts on top of blowouts, as they did throughout the regular season and again Friday, you’ve got to leave open that window of possibility. Especially if Florida can continue playing the type of suffocating defense it flashed down the stretch in the Erwin Center, when the Gators allowed the Demons (23-9) just five points in the final 12:14.Florida broke open a 52-42 game with that closing spurt, holding the high-scoring Demons 34 points below their season average. After shooting 54.2 percent from the field in the first half, Northwestern State converted at only a 19.2 clip after intermission (5-of-26).The Demons went 6:29 without scoring during one stretch of the second half and made just one field goal in the final 13:13.More defensive efforts like that can make it irrelevant that the Gators still own an 0-6 record in games decided by fewer than 10 points this season. After Friday’s thrashing of Northwestern State, Florida has outscored its opponents by an average of 18 points per game, with the closet margin of victory a 61-51 decision over Alabama in the SEC tournament.“The second half, we came out with a different energy level and a different focus,” Gators guard Kenny Boynton said. “In the first half, we had slip-ups and were giving up wide-open layouts. When we talked at halftime, the main focus was energy. We did a great job of contesting shots and getting back in transition.”Florida coach Billy Donovan said a defensive ultimatium was necessary because the Demons’ speed “got us back on our heels where our defense wasn’t very good at all.” That changed by 180 degrees after intermission.After a jumper by Northwestern State’s DeQuan Hicks cut Florida’s lead to 40-36 with 19:00 remaining, the Demons made only three more shots from the field the rest of the night. Florida dominated the backboards 43-26 and eliminated second-chance and transition opportunities.Demons guard Shamir Davis called Florida “one of the best defensive teams in the nation.” Fellow guard Brison White said Northwestern State “got discombobulated” and eventually discouraged by their offensive effort.“It’s kind of depressing,” White said of the 47-point total. “I’m used to the 80s.”And Florida is used to turning strong defensive efforts into blowouts, which the Gators did once again in their NCAA opener. Florida forward Erik Murphy, who grabbed eight rebounds to go along with his team-high 18 points, declared this a typical effort.“When we play together on defense, we play well. It’s tough for teams to score,” Murphy said.Asked about the lack of a close win this season, Murphy said: “Those things, us with the close games, that’s in the past. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”If Florida blows out its next five opponents, the point becomes moot. But the odds are good that the Gators will have to depend on their defense to win at least one close one, maybe more, if they are to use a trip to Cowboys Stadium as a steppingstone to the Final Four.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch