By Mark Long
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Florida’s smallest player carried the team to its biggest win of the season.
Erving Walker, generously listed at 5 feet, 8 inches, scored 21 points and hit several clutch shots down the stretch as the Gators beat UCLA 73-65 in the NCAA tournament Saturday.
Walker scored 10 of Florida’s final 12 points, including four free throws in the final 33 seconds. His most significant basket was a 3-pointer with just over minute remaining. That shot gave the second-seeded Gators (28-7) a 69-65 lead and forced the No. 7 seed Bruins (23-11) into desperation mode.
UCLA wasted several chances from the free-throw line, much like it did Thursday against Michigan State. The Bruins survived that one. They had no such luck against Florida, which advanced to the round of 16 in the Southeast region. The Gators will play either BYU or Gonzaga next week in New Orleans.
Kenny Boynton added 12 points and five assists for Florida. Alex Tyus chipped in eight points and a season-high 13 rebounds.
Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson led UCLA with 16 points apiece.
The Bruins kept it close throughout by pounding the boards and getting Florida in foul trouble.
But the Gators offset their problems inside with 50 percent shooting, six 3-pointers and Walker. The junior from New York City took over the game down the stretch.
Chandler Parsons got Florida’s late surge going. The Southeastern Conference player of the year blocked Smith’s dunk attempt with a little more than 6 minutes to play.
Boynton then hit a 3-pointer on the other end. Parsons got the ball on the next possession and found Erik Murphy for a wide-open 3 that made it 61-55.
Tyler Honeycutt kept UCLA in it with a 3-pointer that made it 61-58 and another that made it 66-63. But Honeycutt missed two 3s in the final minute. Walker delivered on the other end.
Boynton landed on Smith’s foot and injured his left leg, stayed on the court a few minutes, got helped to the locker room and eventually returned. But he was clearly hobbled. Coach Billy Donovan responded by putting the ball in Walker’s hands.
Walker drove into Smith’s 325-pound body and sank a how-did-that-go-in prayer off the glass. That put Florida ahead 63-58. Walker drained a free throw, and Vernon Macklin added a reverse layup.
Walker then hit that huge 3 with 1:14 on the clock.
Florida knocked UCLA out of the NCAA tournament for the third time in the last six years. The Gators beat the Bruins twice in the Final Four, sending them home in the NCAA title game in 2006 and in the semifinals the following year.
UCLA got off to a slow start in the rematch, turning the ball over three times in its first three possessions. But then Smith got going and so did the Bruins.
Smith pounded the Gators in the paint, scoring six points and pulling down four offensive rebounds in the early going. But then Smith picked up his second foul, and the Gators took advantage down low.
Patric Young and Erik Murphy, on the court in place of Macklin, combined for eight first-half points in the paint.
Thanks to the post presence, Florida shot a sizzling 56 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes. The Bruins offset that with nine offensive rebounds and 15 free-throw attempts.
UCLA had chances to tie or take the lead just before the half, but Anthony Stover failed to convert the free throw on a three-point play. Teammate Tyler Lamb got the rebound and Lamb was fouled a few seconds later, but he missed two more from the line.
Florida’s Murphy knocked the loose ball out of bounds, giving UCLA another chance. The Bruins squandered that one, too, as Jerime Anderson missed a jumper and Honeycutt missed a layup at the buzzer.
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