Like so many other games in this season of close calls, the Gators were within what seemed like an inch of victory but as has been the case so many times, an inch was as good as a mile. Florida did what it has done all year long, faded in the final couple of minutes and lost a very winnable game. In this case, it was a second winnable game against Texas A&M. Back on January 12, the Gators snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in College Station with an abysmal night at the foul line. Friday afternoon, the Gators simply wilted in the final 2:07.
All losses hurt, but the pain of this particular loss will likely be felt long into the future. Had the Gators knocked off the Aggies, they probably would have punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament but instead of dancing to the tunes of March Madness, they will almost certainly make the field for the NIT.
“Again, it's twice we've had a really good Texas A&M team in a position to potentially do something special, and they just made the right plays down the stretch” is how Florida coach Mike White described the frustration of a second close call against the Aggies.
Win those two games and there is no doubt the Gators are playing in the NCAA, but those are just two of six or seven other similar games this year. The Gators are good enough to play everybody close, just not good enough to close out opponents down the stretch.
The Gators were in good shape to score the win with 2:07 left when the Aggies’ Jalen Jones converted a scramble play into a baseline drive for a layup that broke a 61-61 deadlock. The play begin with an entry pass into the low blocks to Tyler Davis, who was swarmed by three Gators. When Davis couldn’t come up with the ball Admon Gilder somehow sneaked into the pack, came away with the ball and found Jones along the baseline with a clear path to the basket. On the ensuing possession for the Gators, Alex Caruso got enough of the basketball to deflect it to Gilder who flipped it ahead to Caruso for a dunk and a 4-point lead with 1:43 to go.
Following two missed free throws by Kasey Hill that could have cut the margin to two points, Danuel House worked free on the right wing and delivered a dagger of a 3-pointer to make it a 68-62 game. The Gators still had life, however, cutting the margin back to two on a driving floater by Devin Robinson and two Hill free throws with 30.3 seconds remaining but Gilder made it a two-possession game with 23.1 seconds left when he hit two free throws. Florida’s fate was sealed four seconds later when Gilder got a piece of a KeVaughn Allen layup attempt and Caruso was fouled retrieving the ball. Caruso’s two free throws were the final daggers in another all too close loss.
With the exception of House getting loose for the 3-ball in the final two minutes, the Gators played outstanding perimeter defense. The Aggies hit only 4-16 of their 3-point shots and finished the game hitting only 28-71 of their shots overall. Florida’s defensive problems were in the paint where the Aggies scored 44 of their 72 points led by freshman Tyler Davis, who bulled his way to the basket for 15 points and backup center Tony Trocha-Morales, who scored 9 off the bench.
It really didn’t matter what kind of defense the Gators tried, Davis and Trocha-Morales seemed to have answers.
We tried changing defenses a bunch,” White said. “We tried changing defenders on Tyler Davis. He is just really good. It's just hard to believe that he's a freshman. He's enormous. He's strong. He's physical. He likes contact. He's got good feet. He's got great instincts in terms of knowing where and when to seal and how to seal you. He's got great hands as well.”
While the Gators played tight perimeter defense, the Aggies almost dared the Gators to hit 3-pointers. Florida’s 3-19 effort behind the arc had little to do with Texas A&M defense and everything to do with another bad shooting night. Just do the math. If the Gators hit three more 3-balls they still don’t hit 33% for the game, but the 9 points would have given them a win.
The Gators did score 30 points in the paint, many by Hill, who put the Gators on his back and scored 14 of his 18 points driving to the hoop in the second half. But there wasn’t enough help, not enough made shots and another winnable game slipped through Florida’s hands, making the NCAA Tournament a serious longshot and the NIT a very real possibility.
With the loss by Florida on Friday and Vanderbilt’s loss to Tennessee on Thursday, it’s entirely possible only Texas A&M, Kentucky and South Carolina will make the NCAA Tournament field.
White won three straight league titles when he was at Louisiana Tech only to lose in the Conference USA Tournament where it’s rare more than one team gets a bid. The SEC is a power conference, but unlike football, the national perception is that it’s a week league.
White takes exception to that.
“Do I think the SEC is underrated?” White asked rhetorically. “Absolutely, I really do. I think we get probably talked about a little bit less than we should. I think, when you look at some of the teams in the middle of our league and at the bottom of our league and some of the big wins that they had against some of the better teams in this league, it shows you the parity that exists. I think you've got a roster full of experienced, talented coaches. And then it's an extremely athletic and talented league.”
The Gators (19-14) proved during the season that they’re capable of playing with anyone in the league. Playing with them and beating them, however, are two different stories as we saw on Friday.
Florida played the Aggies close, but couldn’t finish the deal. The NCAA Tournament will be filled with teams the Gators could probably beat, but unless a minor miracle occurs with the tournament selection committee, UF won’t get that chance.