Orlando, FL (SportsNetwork.com) - The NCAA Tournament's top overall seed will begin their quest for a national championship on Thursday afternoon when the Florida Gators take on the 16th-seeded Albany Great Danes in the second round of the South Regional at the Amway Center.
Albany (19-14), the champions of the America East Conference, participated in the first round on Tuesday night and came away with a 71-64 triumph over fellow No. 16 seed Mount St. Mary's for its first-ever NCAA Tournament win in four tries.
Florida (32-2) is riding a program-record 26-game winning streak, and after winning the SEC regular-season title with a perfect 18-0 league mark, it worked its way through the SEC Tournament with wins over Missouri (72-49), Tennessee (56-49) and Kentucky (61-60) en route to its fourth conference tournament championship and the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance. The Gators are making their 14th NCAA Tournament appearance under Billy Donovan, going 31-11 in his previous appearances with national titles in 2006 and 2007.
The teams met just once before, with the Gators winning on their home floor in November of 2005, 83-64.
The Great Danes built up a commanding 19-point lead in the first half of their first-round matchup only for Mount St. Mary's to climb its way back in, but with the game tied midway through the second half, Peter Hooley connected on a layup to give the squad the lead and it would hold off the Mountaineers down the stretch. Albany shot a lofty 57.4 percent from the field on the evening and were led by DJ Evans (22 points, nine rebounds) and Hooley (20 points). Gary Johnson was also stellar with 13 points and Sam Rowley brought down 13 rebounds.
Albany's offensive attack this season has been lackluster, as it scores just 66.2 ppg on 44.3 percent field goal shooting, but luckily it has been able to ride the strong play of its defense, which yields only 63.8 ppg on 41.7 percent shooting. Hooley (15.8 ppg) has been potent from 3-point range with 70 long-range buckets made at a 39.3 percent clip. Evans (11.5 ppg), Rowley (11.4 ppg) and Johnson (11.0 ppg) are also mainstays in the starting lineup.
The Gators had their hands full with Kentucky in the SEC championship game, as they saw their 15-point lead with 11:05 to play shrink to just one with 1:31 left. Although the squad nearly cost itself by missing the front end of two one-and-one free-throw opportunities in the final minute, its defense stood up to the Wildcats as it held on for the one-point victory. Michael Frazier and Patric Young both scored 14 points to pace the effort. Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin netted 11 points apiece, with Wilbekin adding six assists as well.
Florida possesses a strong offense, shooting 46.2 percent from the field for 70.7 ppg this season, but the primary reason for its status as the nation's top team has been its excellent defense, which ranks third nationally in giving up just 57.9 ppg. Wilbekin (13.0 ppg, 3.8 apg, 1.7 spg) was anointed the SEC Player of the Year and earned a spot on the conference's All-Defensive Team alongside Young (11.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.9 bpg), who was the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Prather (14.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg) is the top offensive threat, shooting a lofty 61.2 percent from the field. Frazier (12.9 ppg) has been lights out from beyond the arc, making 107 3-pointers at 45.5 percent efficiency.