Exactly as his coach asked him to, Brad Beal is bringing out his `A' game. His latest bit of wizardry moved Florida a win away from the Final Four and set up Billy Donovan with a perfectly scripted matchup against his old coach and boss, Rick Pitino.
Beal, the freshman with NBA written all over him, scored 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting Thursday night to help the Gators to a 68-58 victory over Marquette.
Next up for No. 7 Florida (26-10) is a West Regional final Saturday against Louisville and Pitino, who taught ol' Billy The Kid a lot of what he knows.
"Obviously, I've said that outside of my parents, he's the most influential person in my life," Donovan said.
The most influential person on Donovan's team? On this night, it was Beal. He also had six rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots, including one on Jae Crowder while the third-seeded Golden Eagles (27-8) were desperately trying to claw back after trailing by 14.
Crowder, a senior and the Big East player of the year, never found his touch. After sitting for eight minutes in the first half with foul trouble, he finished with 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting while another Marquette senior, Darius Johnson-Odom, also went 5 for 15 in a struggle to reach 14 points.
"We struggled being in rhythm most of the game," coach Buzz Williams said. "Jae has always played more than 12 minutes in a half, but it's dangerous for him to pick up his third, so he sat a lot the half. When you're playing against a team as good as Florida and you're playing without your key guys, it's hard for that rhythm to get established."
Erving Walker had 11 for the Gators, including a 3-pointer that came after Patric Young scrapped for an offensive rebound with 2:05 left. It snapped a 6-0 Marquette run that pulled the third-seeded Golden Eagles to within six.
But the biggest difference maker was Beal, a high school national player of the year whom Donovan has been pushing to be more assertive, especially after the Gators lost four of five heading into the tournament.
"He doesn't want to step on toes; he's very aware of his place on the team," Donovan said, in explaining Beal's slow acceptance of a leading role. "You can't do anything but love him because of the way he handles himself."
In the second half, Beal served up about five perfect examples of what he can do when he steps up a bit. Blanketed by Marquette's Todd Mayo, Beal hesitated, took a stutter step, then breezed past him for a reverse layup that would've made George Gervin proud.
It was the second time he'd blown past Mayo for a layup. He also had a 3-pointer, a couple of free throws and a pretty assist to Young to help the Gators go up 56-44 with less than five minutes left. For cappers, he dunked for the last points of the game, leaving him one short of the high-water scoring mark of his one-year-one-and-done?-college career.
This is Florida's second straight trip to the regional final. Last year, the Gators lost to Butler-one of the NCAA tournament's great stories of 2010 and 2011. An early candidate for 2012 could be the upcoming coaching showdown. Donovan was the undersized-but-gritty guard who helped Pitino and Providence make a run into the Final Four back in 1987.
A bit later, Donovan went against his mentor's advice, quit a job on Wall Street then came to be Pitino's assistant. A great coaching mind was born, and now Donovan has two national titles and three trips to the Final Four, compared to one championship and five Final Fours for his old boss.
According to STATS, Pitino is 6-0 against Donovan, two of those in Florida-Louisville matchups.
"These are hard games, because they're such close relationships," Donovan said. "But I do think the game is really about players playing in the game who are going to be competing on Saturday."
Marquette, meanwhile, exits the tournament in the round of 16 for the second straight year. Mayo had 11 for the Golden Eagles, who shot 31 percent and were held 18 points under their season average.
"Anytime you get beat, it's a bailout to just say you didn't make shots," Williams said. "You always give credit to the opponent, the staff that beat you."
Kenny Boynton (11 points) made 5 of 6 free throws down the stretch to ice it for the Gators, who won back-to-back titles in 2006-07.