If one word describes year one of the Mike White Era as Florida’s basketball coach it’s almost -- as in almost good enough to be an outstanding basketball team; as in almost good enough to play in the NCAA Tournament and make a decent run; as in almost good enough to advance to the semifinals of the National Invitational Tournament.
That last almost describes Tuesday night when the Gators almost made enough shots to knock off George Washington in the quarterfinals of the NIT at the Smith Center in Washington, DC. The Colonials (26-10) made shots when it counted most, which is why they earned an 82-77 win and moved on to New York. The Gators (21-15) saw their season come to an end because they couldn’t finish at the rim throughout the game, but especially in the final 4:14.
At the 4:14 mark and the score tied at 70-70, Kasey Hill made a brilliant defensive play to pick off a Joe Montgomery pass at the foul line. Florida had numbers going to the rim, but Hill elected to take it all the way, probably expecting a worst case scenario foul call that would send him to the line for two shots.
But there was no call, Hill missed the shot and GW’s Patricio Garino came away with the rebound.
Just 32 seconds later, Dorian Finney-Smith found himself at the line with two foul shots. He missed the first, made the second and gave UF a 71-70 lead. After the Colonials tied the game on a free throw, Hill had another chance in the lane, but his floater with 3:00 to go came up empty. Down at the other end, Kevin Larsen overpowered two UF defenders for a layup that gave GW a 73-71 lead.
After a Chris Chiozza runner tied the score at 73-73 with 2:25 left, the Colonials got the lead back on a Tyler Cavanaugh free throw. On Florida’s trip down the floor, Finney-Smith had a wide open look straight on from the top of the key but his 3-pointer rimmed out. Down at the other end, Cavanaugh had almost the exact same shot for the Colonials. His shot found the bottom of the net.
That was the kind of game it was for the Gators.
“We had our chances tonight,” White said, pointing to the fact the Gators scored 77 points, more than enough to win the game. “We had opportunities that we didn’t capitalize on.”
And that is the story of Florida’s basketball season. The difference between a team that lost in the NIT to finish at 21-15 and a team with 27-28 wins playing in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 is capitalizing on opportunities. There were plenty of opportunities to win Tuesday night, but there were also plenty of opportunities in at least six or seven other very winnable games during the season.
Unlike some games when Florida’s inability to knock down free throws cost victory, the Gators were very good Tuesday night. They hit 14-16 and White will take that percentage any night. What cost UF was an inability to hit open shots on the offensive end and not enough defensive resistance down at the other end.
Larsen, GW’s 6-10, 260-pound senior center, pushed and shoved his way in the paint and Florida lacked the strength to body him up with 6-11, 255-pound sophomore center John Egbunu finished for the year after surgery on his thumb to fix a torn ligament. Freshman Kevarrius Hayes played admirably in Egbunu’s absence on the offensive end – 14 points on 6-7 shooting from the field and 2-2 from the line – but at 210 he was no match for Larsen’s strength. Larsen pulled off a double-double, scoring 19 points while grabbing 13 rebounds, 8 of them on the offensive end.
“They really pounded us on the offensive glass and outrebounded us for the game,” White said. GW outrebounded Florida, 40-35. GW scored 15 second chance points in the second half and finished with 34 in the paint
While Larsen was too much for the Gators on the inside, Tyler Cavanaugh proved a mismatch on the outside. He kept finding open spots on the perimeter and when given the ball beyond the arc, he buried 4-5 3-point shots, finishing the game with 23 points.
The Colonials led, 39-36, at the half and held an 8-point lead in the second half, but the Gators wouldn’t go away quietly as Hayes and freshman KeVaughn Allen kept UF in the game. Allen finished with 22 points to lead four Florida players in double figures. Hayes added 14, Hill 12 and Justin Leon 11.
Post Game Notes: In his post game remarks on the Gator Radio Network, White praised Kasey Hill for his improvement in the last few weeks. White said Hill had “the best month of any Gator on our team” … White said Hayes and Allen “are way better than they were last June when they enrolled in school” … Alex Murphy, whose senior season amounted to three games and 23 minutes, will petition the NCAA for a sixth season.