Florida marched to its third consecutive Elite 8 by defeating sentimental favorite Florida Gulf Coast 62-50 Friday night at Cowboys Stadium.
The Gators (29-7) face Michigan at 1:20 p.m. Sunday in search of their first return trip to the Final Four since winning back-to-back national titles in 2006-07.
“I’ve said this before, it’s hard just to win a tournament game, never mind advance,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m happy for Mike Rosario, (Kenny) Boynton and Erik Murphy. But I’m proud of what they’ve been able to do up to this point in time and they’ve gotten better.
“So it’s exciting this time of year to still be playing and still have an opportunity to play again on Sunday.”
Florida senior guard Mike Rosario finished with a game-high 15 points to follow a season-high 25 last week against Minnesota after being benched in the Gators’ opening-round victory over Northwestern State.
Junior forward Casey Prather provided a spark off the bench with 11 points and four rebounds. Junior guard Scottie Wilbekin added 13 points, three rebounds and three assists.
The loss ended the Eagles’ historic Cinderella run that saw them become “America’s Team” due to their anonymity prior to the tournament along with their up-tempo style and exuberance.
FGCU (26-11) became the first 15th seed since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 to advance to the Sweet 16 and would have been the first 13th or lower seed to ever advance to the Elite 8.
“Well, you know at the end of the day we still made history and I’m proud of our team,” said senior guard Sherwood Brown, who finished with a team-high 14 points. “They helped me achieve a goal that I never thought that I would ever reach.”
The Eagles jumped out to a 15-4 lead in the opening minutes behind a pair of 3-pointers by junior forward Chase Fieler and one of the Eagles’ patented alley-oop dunks on the break from Brett Comer to Sherwood Brown.
But Florida, a team known for applying full-court pressure, came charging back by locking down Florida Gulf Coast in the halfcourt. The Gators outscored the Eagles 16-2 over the final five minutes of the first half to take a 30-26 lead at the break.
Florida opened the second on a 7-0 run and never looked back. FGCU mustered only two points in the first five minutes of the second half and didn’t score until the 17:03 mark on a lob from Comer to Eddie Murray.
“At this point in time as a team you want to stay connected and stay locked in on the things you can control,” Rosario said. “I thought we did a great job putting pressure and making those guys feel uncomfortable, trying to get the ball up-court, trying to run their sets. And I thought we did a great job on Comer, as well, keeping him out of the paint so much.”
The Gators led the entire second half and built a 12-point advantage with 12:35 remaining. The Eagles cut the lead to as low as seven twice in the final minutes, but couldn’t catch Florida, who converted 4-of-6 free throws in the final 1:20.
“We’re proud of what we did. We made it to the Sweet 16, no one thought we would,” Fieler said. “We had a great leader in Sherwood Brown. We thought we could have won, but we lost to a great team in Florida.”