ORLANDO — For a team whose record suggests so strongly that the national title is its to lose, No.1-ranked Florida has remarkably little margin for error against the quality of opponents it'll face in the NCAA tournament.
Close games are to be expected. Clutch shots and stretches of dominant defense are going to be needed. Even at 33-2, the Gators have been efficient and functional far more often than dazzling.
But Thursday's South Region game against No. 16 seed Albany was supposed to be different. This was the best squad in the country against the fourth-place team from the America East Conference playing its third game in six days in three cities.
BOX SCORE: Florida 67, Albany 55
MARCH MADNESS: NCAA tournament bracket
Instead of reiterating its supremacy, however, Florida might have given the field more hope — and raised questions internally — in a 67-55 win at Amway Center.
"We didn't play like we needed to in the NCAA tournament, and I think we all know that," Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. "We never panicked, but we are just kind of out of sync as a team."
The atmosphere inside the Gators locker room was almost funereal as they pondered why they were a step slow defensively and unable to consistently counter the junk box of defenses Great Danes coach Will Brown threw at them to limit the number of shots taken by Wilbekin and three-point specialist Michael Frazier.
OTHER VIEW: Being on the wrong side is no fun
Though it never seemed like Albany had enough to become the first No. 16 to take down a No.1, the score was briefly tied with 14:32 remaining until Florida responded with a 7-0 spurt. But even then, the Gators could not relax until Wilbekin drilled a three-pointer with 2:10 remaining for a 12-point lead.
"We were able to overcome it and win the game, but we weren't the same defensive team we've been in the past," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
The concern for Florida is both long term and immediate.
The Gators will have to raise their level to get by No. 9 seed Pittsburgh, which looked rejuvenated in a 77-48 victory against No. 8 seed Colorado.
Pitt jumped out to a 13-0 lead and never allowed the game to become competitive, extending the margin to 46-18 at halftime.
"We're a better team now than we were earlier in the year," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "That's what you hope to be."
The drama in Orlando came in the evening, as No. 5 seed Saint Louis erased a 14-point deficit in the final five minutes of regulation to beat No. 12 seed North Carolina State 83-80 in overtime.
The Wolfpack made 20 of 37 free throws for the game, including eight of 18 in the final three minutes. That allowed the Billikens to mount a furious rally that ended with Jordair Jett's tying layup with 20 seconds to go.
"That's probably the weirdest turn of events that I've ever been a part of," said Saint Louis center Rob Loe, who scored a career-high 22 points with 15 rebounds.
Saint Louis trailed by double-digit points for a 10-minute stretch before the comeback, then held on in overtime as Ralston Turner's tying attempt missed just before the buzzer.
T.J. Warren had 28 points for the Wolfpack but missed eight foul shots.
"It's heartbreaking," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. "It kind of steamrolled on us there from the foul line."
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