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#15 UCSB (18-13) vs. #2 Florida (26-7)
Betting Line: Florida -12.5 o/u 128
The 15th-seeded UC-Santa Barbara Gauchos (18-13) made it to the NCAA tournament by upsetting Big West top seed Long Beach State 64-56 in the conference tourney championship game on Saturday and will have a much bigger challenge awaiting them Thursday in their Southeast Region first-round matchup with the second-seeded Florida Gators (26-7) at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. The Gators (-12.5) finished the regular season with the best record in the Southeastern Conference at 13-3 but lost to Kentucky in the tournament title game on Sunday, 70-54.
Florida's last two losses have both come at the hands of the Wildcats, but the team has gone 10-0 against other opponents since January 29. A pair of 11-point wins over Tennessee and Vanderbilt got the Gators to the SEC championship game, but poor shooing doomed them against Kentucky. The starting backcourt of Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker combined to make just 7 of 26 shots from the field on their way to 18 points between them. The team as a whole shot just 38.6 percent from the field and was outrebounded 31-29 by the Wildcats.
Santa Barbara is back in the Big Dance after beating the 49ers for the Big West's automatic bid for the second year in a row. The Gauchos lost to Ohio State 68-51 in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, barely covering the 17.5-point spread. However, they almost did not return after blowing a 10-point lead in the first half against Long Beach State.
Head coach Bob Williams challenged leading scorer Orlando Johnson at halftime with Santa Barbara tied 27-27 with the 49ers. Johnson responded by scoring 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half. He averaged 21.1 points and a team-high 6.3 rebounds per game this year and scored 20 against the Buckeyes in last year's NCAA tournament.
The Gauchos have won their last four games both straight-up and against the spread following a three-game losing streak. Florida had also won four in a row both SU and ATS before falling to Kentucky, with the OVER going 9-1 in the previous 10 games prior to that loss.
The Gators lost in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament to Jimmer Fredette and BYU in double overtime, 99-92. Fredette scored a game-high 37 points while Boynton had 26 to lead Florida. The teams combined for 41 points in the overtime sessions after the score was tied 75-75 at the end of regulation. Boynton and Walker made 8 of 23 attempts from 3-point range.
Predicted Score: Florida 78 Cal SB 53
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