AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Look out, college basketball, here comes the Sunshine State. The Miami Hurricanes and Florida Gators rolled through Austin on the first weekend of the NCAA tournament and will join upstart Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16.
A state known for breeding some of the best college football players in the country has charged through March behind the perennial-power Gators, the surging Hurricanes and the Eagles, the team that has become the national darling of the postseason.
“The state of Florida has great basketball teams,” Miami’s standout guard Shane Larkin said. “Florida Gulf Coast was a team we played early in the season and they beat us. But now it just shows that they’re a great team because they beat us.”
Miami (29-6), the No. 2 seed in the East Region, advanced to the round of 16 in Washington, D.C., with a tough 63-59 win over No. 7 Illinois on Sunday night. Larkin hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with a minute left and Miami gained possession on a ball knocked out of bounds that probably should have gone to Illinois, helping the Hurricanes hold on for the win.
After Larkin’s first field goal in about nine and a half minutes, Illinois guard D.J. Richardson missed a 3-pointer. In the fight for the rebound, the ball appeared to ricochet off the hands of Miami’s Kenny Kadji out of bounds. But the Hurricanes kept the ball and Durand Scott made two free throws after that.
Rion Brown’s two free throws with 7 seconds left pushed the game out of reach and put the Hurricanes in the Sweet 16 for just the second time in school history. Miami will play the East Region’s No. 3 seed, Marquette (25-8), this Thursday night.
“On the free throws, the only thing I thought about was just Sweet 16,” Brown said.
Larkin, the ACC player of the year, finished with 17 points. Brown scored 21.
Brandon Paul scored 18 for Illinois (23-13) who were left to wonder how things might have been if a late call had gone its way.
“You saw the same video I did,” first-year Illinois coach John Groce said. He added that “hard game to officiate … 50-50 calls are hard sometimes.”
Kadji said he didn’t know if he touched the ball last before it went out of bounds and was awarded to the Hurricanes.
“It was just so many hands, you know,” Kadji said. “I don’t know who touched it last.”
Florida, which won national titles in 2006 and 2007 and lost in the regional final the last two seasons, will come back to Texas after using a big first half and clutch shooting by Mike Rosario to beat Minnesota 78-64.
The Gators, the No. 3 seed in the South, get a matchup with their high-flying statemates No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast on Friday night at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.
FGCU can only hope its second weekend in the NCAA tournament is as much fun as its first. The little-known Eagles made NCAA tournament history Sunday night, becoming the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 – and they did it in style with a convincing 81-71 win over No. 7 San Diego State that had the Wells Fargo Center partying.
“We got a lot of exposure this weekend and now I’m sure it’ll be increased,” FGCU coach Andy Enfield said in one of the understatements of the tournament. “If you watched us play and know the personalities, it won’t be a problem. They enjoy themselves. I think it’s important for them to take this in. I want all our players to take a couple deep breaths and say, ‘Wow, we’re in the Sweet 16, we’ve accomplished a lot.’”
The players – and their new fans from Philadelphia – had a blast in their first two NCAA tournament games: the 78-68 victory over second-seeded Georgetown that brought the Eagles (26-10) to the nation’s attention and the impressive win over the seventh-seeded Aztecs.
“Words can’t describe this feeling as being a 15 seed, the first 15 seed to ever do this,” FGCU point guard Brett Comer said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in to any of us yet. I feel like maybe it will tomorrow but right now we’re on such an emotional high it’s hard to come down from.’’