Published: Friday, March 16, 2012 at 7:19 p.m. Last Modified: Friday, March 16, 2012 at 7:19 p.m.
OMAHA, Neb. — Today is St. Patrick’s Day. I guess Friday was April Fools’.
Because how else could you explain who Craig Sager was interviewing following Florida’s win over Virginia?
Casey Prather. Who had him in the pool?
“He’s a matchup problem,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett.
Casey Prather? the guy who had scored 37 points all season and had almost as many turnovers? that guy?
“he took it to us,” said Mike Scott, the Virginia player who was runner-up for ACC player of the year.
Scott outscored Prather on Friday. By a single point.
He had nowhere near the impact on the game that Prather did.
March Madness turns players who the country has never heard of into household names, but usually it’s a starter who has played in the obscurity of a mid-major conference. It’s not usually a guy who doesn’t play.
Prather came in averaging 8.2 minutes a game, a statistic distorted by non-conference fluff in the beginning of the season. in conference play, including last week’s SEC Tournament, he has averaged 3.9 minutes a game.
On Friday, he played 22 spectacular minutes.
So there he was with a moment to cherish, being interviewed on national TV. It wasn’t something he envisioned when he woke up in the morning.
“No, I didn’t,” he said.
He probably thought he would have dozens of those moments by now. but things haven’t worked out for Prather in his two seasons as a Gator. the former four-star recruit has spent much more time on the bench than the court. when he has played, he’s caused Florida fans to wince at times.
A lot of guys would have left Florida because they weren’t playing. A lot of them have.
But Prather kept plugging away. And you could tell on Friday that’s why he’s one of Billy Donovan’s favorites.
“It’s hard for a young kid when it’s not going well,” Donovan said. “he really, really deserves this.”
Donovan and his staff decided on more minutes for Prather on Thursday night because of the matchup problems the Gator big men would have with Scott. They knew that the answer for Scott was on the bench, but in a walking boot.
“If there was ever a game we could have used Will Yeguete, it was this one,” Donovan said. “we needed to give Casey a shot.”
So they did. And when Florida was sleep-walking through the first few minutes of the game, Prather was a human defibrillator. he snatched an offensive rebound out of the air and put it back in to cut Virginia’s lead to 12-8. he had another offensive rebound and a follow-up hook shot to cut the lead to one a few minutes later.
A 3-pointer, an alley-oop dunk. Bennett must have been wondering how Florida was able to get Dwyane Wade eligible.
“I knew he could do this,” said Florida senior Erving Walker. “he gives us fits in practice.”
When it was over, Prather had 14 points and four rebounds and had been a major factor in neutralizing Scott. Most importantly, he had no turnovers.
“the celebration was awesome,” Prather said.
His teammates couldn’t have been happier because they’ve seen Prather work his tail off day after day without the promise of a reward. Donovan talked about players who “sulk and pout” when they’re not getting playing time. Prather would just show up the next day ready to work.
“It was kind of difficult,” Prather said. “I had high expectations. I just kept working at it. Coach D kept telling me to stay the course and your time will come.
“I guess it was a good time for it to come.”
There’s no telling what the future — either immediate or down the road — will hold for Prather. Let’s face it, Virginia wasn’t very athletic and Florida was able to take advantage of it.
But on Friday, he was there on the court talking into a microphone about being the player of the game in an NCAA Tournament win.
No matter what happens from here on out, he’ll always have Friday.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.