AUSTIN, Texas – 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.
Now a state known for breeding some of the best college football players in the country is charging through March behind the perennial-power Gators, the surging Hurricanes and the Eagles, the team that has become the national darlings 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's just show 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 9 1/2 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), on 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) which was 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, "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.
Rosario scored 25 points a day after coach Billy Donovan called him out in front of his team for a poor performance in the Gators' first tournament game against Northwestern State.
"The message that coach gave us and gave me personally was, 'You've got to go out there and compete,'" said Rosario, who was 8 of 12 shooting overall and 6 of 9 from 3-point range. "In the second half there, we dug deep."
Donovan clearly knows which buttons to push.
"I think he felt bad about it," Donovan said. "I'm on him all the time. A lot. Because I want him to be the best he can be."
Andre Hollins scored 25 points to lead the Gophers (21-13).
Defensively, the Gators denied just about everything the Gophers tried in the first half. Florida tied up shooters at the perimeter, challenged layups and blocked a dunk when Casey Prather stuffed Minnesota's muscular Trevor Mbakwe in a clear statement that the Southeastern Conference regular-season champs would be as tough as anything the Gophers faced in the Big Ten.
Offensively, it seemed as if Florida's shooters couldn't miss. The Gators shot 65 percent in the half and Rosario made four 3-pointers. Minnesota gathered itself for a brief burst when Hollins knocked down consecutive 3-pointers and a steal and layup trimmed Florida's lead to 39-23.
If the Gophers could have pulled within 10 by halftime, they might have been able to grab a lead in the second. Instead, the Gators rolled into the locker room leading 48-27.
But Minnesota wasn't ready to quit.
Hollins, who scored 53 points in two games, made three 3-pointers in an 11-2 run that took some of the swagger out of the Gators. Minnesota kept chipping away and trimmed the Florida lead to 53-46 with 12 minutes left.
"We didn't just hang our heads," Hollins said. "We just had to come out blazing."
But Hollins soon picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench for about four minutes. The Gophers had lost their first shooting option and by the time he returned, the Gators had built the lead back to 12 before a 7-0 run all but closed it out.
"We couldn't get any flow," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith. "When your point guard is your best shooter and your best scorer, it makes it tough."