Florida starts slow, outmuscles Butler

The Baltimore Sun

ST. LOUIS -- Al Horford's dribbles were enough to hurt the Edward Jones Dome court, and his bumps into Brandon Crone were enough to make the Butler defender wince.

But each bounce-bang combination brought Horford closer to the basket, and when he came within four feet, he turned and flipped a short hook shot into the basket.

Horford flexed his biceps. Crone, now on his back, placed his head over his hands. It was a good example of why Florida held off another undersized opponent in this NCAA tournament and kept a national title defense alive.

Horford's hoop broke a tie with 2:38 left in regulation and gave his team the lead for good. Florida would score 12 of the night's final 15 points on the way to defeating No. 5 seed Butler, 65-57, in a Midwest Regional semifinal last night.

The Gators (32-5), the region's and the tournament's top seed, advanced to tomorrow's regional final against Oregon. A win there would send Florida back to the Final Four.

"It's great," senior forward Chris Richard said. "We can feel that it's almost here."

Like Sunday, when Florida rallied past No. 9 seed Purdue in the region's second round, the Gators needed a comeback. Propelled by an early 10-0 run, Butler (29-7), the runner-up from the Horizon League, led by as many as nine points in the first half.

But Horford and Joakim Noah inside, and Taurean Green from behind the three-point line, proved too much for the Bulldogs. Horford finished with 16 points and seven rebounds, and Noah managed 13 points and nine rebounds. Green led all scorers with 17 points and was 5-for-8 on three-pointers, including a 23-footer from the left wing to beat the first-half buzzer.

That capped a 13-0 Florida run and put Florida ahead 35-29 at halftime. Florida, it seemed, had survived Butler's best basketball and held Bulldogs leading scorer A.J. Graves without a point.

The underdogs wouldn't wilt, though, scoring the second half's first seven points to take the lead. The game would see-saw throughout much of the second half, with Green's jump shots and Horford's post moves leading Florida, and Graves and fellow guard Mike Green keeping Butler close.

Two Drew Streicher free throws with 3:33 remaining put Butler back ahead 54-53. But the Gators would look to the low post late, and Butler, which didn't play a man taller than 6 feet 7, could do little.

For much of the game, though, Butler's defense kept the ball out of the low post. The Bulldogs bumped Florida's bigger players out of the lane and contested every pass inside.

"I don't know why we couldn't get it in there," Florida's Lee Humphrey said. "We must not have been executing real well."

But on the night's biggest play, the ball swung to Horford, who scored once more. And the basket helped push the Gators one win from another Final Four.

Dave Curtis writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

BUTLER-Ligon 1-2 0-0 2, Crone 4-9 0-0 10, Betko 1-3 0-0 2, Graves 4-13 2-3 11, Green 4-12 4-6 12, Veasley 0-0 0-0 0, Nellems 0-0 0-0 0, Streicher 1-2 4-4 6, Campbell 5-9 0-0 14. Totals 20-50 10-13 57. FLORIDA-Brewer 3-10 4-4 11, Noah 2-4 9-11 13, Horford 4-5 8-10 16, Green 5-8 2-3 17, Humphrey 2-5 0-0 6, Hodge 0-0 0-0 0, Werner 0-0 0-0 0, Richard 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 17-34 23-28 65. Halftime-Florida, 35-29. 3-point goals-Butler 7-19 (Campbell 4-6, Crone 2-3, Graves 1-6, Streicher 0-1, Green 0-3), Florida 8-19 (Green 5-8, Humphrey 2-5, Brewer 1-6). Fouled out-Betko, Crone. Rebounds-Butler 25 (Green 6), Florida 27 (Noah 9). Assists-Butler 8 (Green 3), Florida 9 (Brewer, Horford, Noah 2). Total fouls-Butler 25, Florida 16. A-NA.

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