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Prather lifts Gators over Virginia
West Region
Florida's Patric Young dunks against Virginia's Joe Harris (12), Darion Atkins and Paul Jesperson (2) in the first half of an NCAA Tournament second-round game on Friday at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. - photo by The Associated Press


OMAHA, Neb. — With his 1.5-point scoring average, Casey Prather surely wasn't a big part of Virginia's scouting report on Florida.

You can bet any team that plays Florida the rest of the NCAA tournament will know who he is.

Prather scored a career-high 14 points on a rare day Florida's 3-point shooters went cold, and the Gators had no trouble beating the Cavaliers 71-45 Friday in the NCAA West Regional.

"On a big stage like this, he was probably a very unlikely candidate to step up and do what he did for us tonight," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I'm happy for him, because he's a great kid."

Prather made 6 of 7 shots in a season-high 22 minutes, using a cool spin move to get to the basket for a baseline layup in the middle of the second half. But his best shot came late when he dunked off Erving Walker's alley-oop pass.

"I woke up trying to be focused on the game and what I could do to help the team," the sophomore reserve said.

Prather had played more than 10 minutes in a game just twice since mid-December and hadn't scored more than six points in any previous game this season. In his last 16 games he had scored a total of 15 points.

"He gave them a great lift," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "When you look at someone off the bench to give you a spark — I don't want to say you weren't counting on him — but that is a pleasant surprise, and he was that for them."

Bradley Beal also had 14 points and 11 rebounds and Patric Young had 13 points on 6-for-6 shooting with three dunks.

Those efforts were enough to offset the Gators' 4-for-23 shooting on 3-pointers. They entered the game averaging a nation-leading 9.9 a game but missed their first 13 attempts.

No. 7 seed Florida (24-10) pierced Virginia's vaunted defense — the Cavaliers were giving up just 53.7 points a game — to get to the boards for second-chance baskets. The press also generated some easy buckets for the Gators, helping them go 24 of 30 from inside the arc.

"We were struggling to score in the beginning," Walker said. "The press had a huge effect on the game. It got us in our offensive rhythm."

The Gators finished the first half on a 17-4 run to shake off a slow start and get out to a 30-22 lead. They shot 70 percent in the second half and pushed their advantage to more than 20 points with 8 minutes left.

Mike Scott had 15 points for Virginia (22-10), which was in the tournament for the first time since 2007.

"We came out with a lot of energy and executed on defense, got what we wanted on offense," Scott said. "But they made their run, and they just came out in the second half very strong."

The teams' second all-time meeting, and first since the 1992 NIT semifinals, was billed as a clash between Virginia's pack-line defense and Florida's up-tempo offense.

It took a bit for the Gators to adjust to the pack-line, which essentially is a man-to-man system that starts with each Virginia player stationed along an imaginary arc about 16 feet from the basket. A defender doesn't cross the line unless his man gets the ball. When the ball is passed, the defender goes back to the pack and a different defender goes out to cover his man.

If the ball penetrates the pack, defenders collapse on the player with the ball and work to force a turnover. That's what happened on Florida's first possession, with Young getting called for traveling as the defense collapsed on him.

The Gators turned over the ball four times in the first 5 ½ minutes, then just three times the rest of the half.

Ten of their first 19 points came on second chances as they knifed through for putbacks.

Young's beauty of a tip-in on Kenny Boynton's missed jumper got the Gators within two points early — after they fell behind 10-2 — and back-to-back putbacks by Prather and Beal gave Florida its first lead, 19-18.

Scottie Wilbekin finally connected for his team's first 3-pointer with 1:07 left in the half to push the advantage to 30-22. Virginia made only two field goals the last 8 ½ minutes.

Boynton, who came into the game having made 10 of his last 31 3s, was just 3 of 10 overall and 0 for 5 on 3s and finished with eight points — half his team-leading average.

Prather helped pick up the slack with his improbable performance.

Donovan called on the 6-foot-6, 212-pounder when he went to a smaller lineup. He played the power forward spot, matched against the 6-8, 237-pound Scott.

"The biggest thing with Casey, as long as he's not turning the ball over, he's going to play more," Donovan said. "He played within himself aggressively instead of getting out of himself. That was the encouraging thing today."

Prather said he had been frustrated over his lack of minutes this season but is excited about the possibility of making up for lost time.

"Coach Donovan told me to stay the course and my time would come," Prather said. "I guess this was a good time for it to come."