Florida took a 26-23 lead into halftime but scored just six points in the first 7:24 of the second half. Texas A&M fought back to cut the lead to 33-31 after a layup by Antwan Space, and the Gators’ scoring issues looked to be the biggest problem of all.
Alex Murphy’s energy sparked a 14-0 run to help Florida run away and eventually secure a 66-62 win over the Aggies (20-9, 11-6 SEC).
“Alex has always been really good on the break,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s a big, strong and physical body that can get to the basket. He had some good drives, knocked down a three. He gave us some good minutes. Alex always plays with energy.”
Murphy got the run started with two free throws, and he injected life back into the O’Connell Center crowd with a fast break dunk. Freshmen Chris Chiozza and Devin Robinson combined to score the next eight points before Murphy’s up-and-under layup pushed the Florida (15-15, 8-9 SEC) lead to 47-31, igniting a standing ovation from the crowd.
Murphy ended the game with nine points, no rebounds and no assists, but the points he scored to help start the run were more important than anything else.
“We played with a lot of energy,” Murphy said. “We played well defenisvely and got in transition to create some easy buckets. Guys hit some shots.”
The Florida lead, which got as high as 16 points, was in jeopardy late because of the team’s continued free throw issues. Florida held a 14-point lead with 1:58 left to play but hit just eight of their final 18 free throws after that. The misses late allowed Texas A&M to get back in the game, cutting the lead to three points twice in the first 13 seconds of the game.
The Gators finished the night 20-38 (52.6 percent) from the free throw line after shooting 64.4 percent on the season coming into Tuesday.
“We remained positive, coaches remained positive,” Murphy said. “We kept coming together. We didn’t make the free throws we wanted to, but guys had confidence we would knock them down. It’s something we have to improve on. Going 20-38, you can’t win at this level like that. We got lucky we had a lead tonight and that helped us down the stretch, but in a close game, that’s not going to do it.”
The free throws were especially poor from point guards Chiozza and Kasey Hill. The two combined to go 6-17 from the free throw line and didn’t handle the pressure well. Donovan said he couldn’t take both off the floor simply because he needed ball handlers in the late-game situations. He wanted them to go through stressful free throws, and they struggled with the pressure on Tuesday.
“That has been a microcosm of our season,” Donovan said. “We’re not a mentally strong team.”
Florida returns to action on Saturday at No. 1 Kentucky. Tip off is set for 2 p.m. on CBS.