You can almost sum up what happened at the O-Dome Tuesday night in one play. With a couple of seconds left in the first half, the Florida Gators were in position to go into the locker unexpectedly tied with the Vanderbilt Commodores, who spent most of the half ahead by 8-10 points. Kasey Hill saw Schuyler Rimmer in the paint, about two feet from the basket, and rifled a pass for what looked like an easy dunk except 6-5 Matthew Fisher-Davis blocked Rimmer’s shot into the waiting hands of 7-footer Josh Henderson.
The moment the ball hit Henderson’s hands he turned and heaved. Eighty-five feet later the ball burned its way through the nylon for a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Instead of a 37-37 halftime deadlock, the Gators went into the locker trailing by five, 40-35.
That was the kind of night it was for both the Gators (17-11, 8-7 SEC), who might find themselves on the NCAA bubble after falling to Vandy, 87-74. On the other hand, Vandy, which was on Lunardi’s last four in list and headed for a first four assignment, might have reversed roles with UF. The Commodores (17-11, 9-5 SEC) will probably move into a top 10 Lunardi seed when he re-brackets before Friday.
This was a night when Florida needed to make stops on the defensive end but stops were few and far behind The Commodores hit 57.3% from the field overall (30-52) and 10-20 from the 3-point line. When the Gators needed to make a defensive play no one stepped up. When Vanderbilt needed to make a shot, someone found the bottom of the net.
As much as the 85-footer by Henderson sucked the air out of the O-Dome, so did an NBA range 3-pointer by Fisher-Davis with 3:44 to go in the game. Florida, which had battled back from a 10-point deficit to within two three minutes earlier, was down 73-67 when Wade Baldwin IV missed the second of two free throws but Luke Kornet came out of a pack to snag the loose ball. Kornet pitched it out to Fisher-Davis on the left wing and the Vandy sharpshooter (4-8 from the 3-point line) launched and gave the Commodores a 9-point lead.
“We weren’t good enough defensively to defend a really good offensive team,” Florida coach Mike White said post game.
And that is what is so confounding about this game. Defense has been the trademark for the Gators all season long out of necessity. Florida’s rotten shooting has forced the Gators to play defense like a pack of wild dogs just to stay close. Tuesday, the shots weren’t there. Nothing unusual about that.
But neither was the defense.
The Gators were 24-60 overall from the field (40%) and a miserable 5-19 (26.3%) from the 3-point line. Leading scorers Dorian Finney-Smith and KeVaughn Allen were held to a combined 10 points. Finney-Smith was 1-7 from the field while Allen was 0-7. Vandy concentrated its entire defensive effort on taking those two out of the game and that meant open shots for the other guys. The only problem was the other guys couldn’t make shots.
“We could not get them (Finney-Smith and Allen) open but that allowed other guys to get shots but we didn’t convert them,” White said.
The missed open shots hurt the worst after UF had sliced Vandy’s 10-point lead to 69-67 on a pair of Allen free throws with 6:38 left in the game. Over the next two minutes the Gators had three straight wide open shots but couldn’t get one to fall. Chris Chiozza missed a 3-pointer from straight on. Brandon Francis-Ramirez missed a 3-ball from the left wing and Finney-Smith clanked a runner in the lane. Vanderbilt stopped the bleeding when Baldwin nailed an uncontested 3-ball with 4:28 to go but Chiozza launched and missed a 3-pointer with 4:10 left, Florida’s fourth straight possession that ended with a missed shot and a Vandy rebound.
Once Fisher-Davis hit his 3-pointer to stretch the Vanderbilt lead to nine, the Gators had no more left in the tank and Vanderbilt pulled away to take the biggest win by a visiting team at the O-Dome since Kentucky beat the Gators by 15 in 2012.
Tuesday’s game started out much like the loss to South Carolina last Saturday. Florida seemed to sleepwalk through the first 10 minutes, falling behind 22-12 on a combination of impatient offense and leadfooted defense. Vandy hit 10 of its first 16 shots and got just about any shot it wanted. Matador defense would have been an improvement.
The Gators got a little bit of offensive life from an unexpected source when Francis-Ramirez scored five points off the bench to cut the Vandy lead to 24-17, but a 3-ball by Matthew Fisher-Davis ballooned the lead back to 10. That’s when Florida began to find some sort of rhythm at both ends of the floor. A dunk by John Egbunu on a wraparound pass by Kasey Hill was followed by a 3-point play by Devin Robinson with 5:11 remaining that cut the Vandy margin to 27-22. Three-pointers – one by Robinson and the other by Justin Leon – on consecutive trips down the floor brought Florida back within four, 32-28, with 3:58 left in the half.
Vandy held a 37-31 lead on a Damian Jones layup with 2:33 left in the half but Florida scored the next four points at the foul line and had a chance to tie the game but what would have been a Rimmer dunk turned into an 85-foot 3-pointer by Henderson.
The Gators travel to LSU Saturday in a game that could very well determine if it’s the NCAA or the NIT for both teams.
Leon led the Gators with 15 points while John Egbunu had 14 and Devin Robinson 11. Finney-Smith led Florida with 11 rebounds.
For Vandy, Damien Jones scored 27 points on 12-13 shooting while Jeff Roberson added 18, Baldwin 13 and Fisher-Davis 12.