Welcome back, Florida, to the Sweet 16.
The five-year quest to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament ended for the Gators and coach Billy Donovan on Saturday afternoon because Joakim Noah is an inexorable inside presence. It ended with a seemingly endless array of jump shots from silken swingman Corey Brewer.
It ended because Florida took immediate control and the stubborn refusal to allow persistent Wisconsin-Milwaukee back into the game. It ended with high-fives and chest thumping and an 82-60 win over the 11th-seeded Panthers in a second-round matchup at Veterans Memorial Arena.
The third-seeded Gators (29-6), winners of their last seven, advance to Minneapolis to play the winner of today's second-round game between Georgetown and Ohio State on Friday.
One of the more successful coaches in college basketball, Donovan had not moved past the second round of the NCAAs since Florida's runner-up finish to Michigan State in 2000. Also considered one of the game's best recruiters, he was beginning to earn an inauspicious Bob Huggins-esque blotch on his record because his teams vanished from the tournament well before their time.
Still, it is a moment that was not anticipated from a young Gators team that features nine freshmen and sophomores, and was unranked coming into the season. But Florida had enough young talent, Donovan believed, to make this a successful season if only the players would buy into what he had to say and teach.
"This team is just different," Donovan said. "Different kids, different time, different everything."
And, because of the kids, a more favorable ending.
When Florida needed a basket, it ran Brewer through staggered screens to free him up and he knocked down 9 of 16 shots, 5 of 8 from three-point range, for a team-high 23 points. When they needed something inside, they went to Al Horford, who scored 13 points and added six rebounds but was limited to 23 minutes because of foul trouble.
When they needed a defensive stop that would block any thoughts of a Panthers comeback, Florida went to Lee Humphrey who hounded Boo Davis into a 3-for-12 shooting afternoon. In fact the only Milwaukee starter to find a rhythm offensively was Adrian Tigert, who scored a game-high 27 points, and that was fine with Donovan because so much of the Panthers' offense flows through the 6-foot-7 senior. Where Tigert is most dangerous is finding open teammates on the wings for three-pointers but on Saturday, he had just three assists.
"Where he kills you is when he gets 16 or 17 points and he dishes eight or nine assists," Donovan said. "We said, 'Listen, we're going to play him one-on-one and force him to score.' "
And when the Gators needed a saving hand at nearly any moment, they had Noah, arguably college basketball's most versatile big man, who could follow his father's footsteps as a champion if he continues his awe-inspiring play. Noah, the son of tennis great and 1983 French Open singles champion Yannick Noah, scored 17 points and added seven rebounds, six assists, four blocks and two steals. In two NCAA Tournament games, the 6-11, 230-pound sophomore is averaging 16.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 4.5 blocks.
"I feel great out there," he said. "This is do or die and you have to play on edge. . . . If I can contribute, I'll contribute."
For Milwaukee, having spent the entire winter in the Horizon League with a target on its back after last year's Sweet 16 appearance, this was an agonizing last act. The Panthers went 22-9 on the year, with the bittersweet knowledge that this blissful run of the last two seasons may come to a crashing halt. All five Panthers starters are seniors.
But for Donovan and his cast of young Gators, the ride is just beginning.
"Our goal is to go all the way," Noah said. "I'll always remember those two games but we have to move on because we can do something even more special. You might think that's greedy but we want more, man, we want more."