Vanderbilt outscored Florida 9-2 at the start of both halves of play, but Florida was able to race back to take a sizable lead both times.
Florida led by nine at half time (40-31), and led 54-42 with 12:06 left to play in regulation. Vanderbilt whittled away at the lead slowly not by their usual means, which is the three-point line, but by taking the ball to the basket and scoring underneath.
Florida head coach Mike White, now 0-4 vs. the Commodores, decided to go with a smaller lineup to defend against the three-point shooting expertise of the Commodores, and that strategy worked. The Commodores were just 5-of-22 (23%) from the arc, but without center Kevarrius Hayes on the floor manning the paint, the Commodores kept taking the ball to the basket and finished with 36 of their 73 points in the paint, not to mention numerous trips to the foul line that paid off.
“It was a high level game between two teams that were playing really hard,” White said on the postgame show on the IMG Gator Radio Network. “Every guy that was in the game left everything they had on the floor. It was a high level intensity game with two teams playing with a bunch of heart and passion and doing whatever they could to finish the season as strong as possible.
“We played really well at times defensively, then we had five or six mess ups and they made us pay for every one there down the stretch. We were really solid in the first half other than a few possessions, but in the second half, too many layups off of miscommunication or where a switch is supposed to take place and it doesn’t take place, transition defense, running to the rim, not guarding anyone and all of a sudden somebody’s open on the perimeter because they send five guys to the three point arc.”
The offensive end wasn’t much better for the Gators at times, especially in the latter portions of the second half. Gators’ leading scorer sophomore Kevaughn Allen came out on fire and scored 13 points in the first half. Then the 87% free-throw shooter missed back to back free throws and was never able to put the ball back in the basket again on the night. His two missed free throws were followed by two misses from senior swing man Canyon Barry, an 88% shooter from the charity stripe.
“He was a little quiet down the stretch, considering the amount of minutes that he played,” White said of Allen who logged 35 minutes in the contest. “He had a great first half, just never really bounced back. We’re a better free throw shooting team than that. The numbers really don’t indicate how we struggled there.
“The two best free throw shooters missed four straight, I know we missed at least one front end. We’ve got to get to the foul line more (just 12-18 on the day), convert more, we’ve done it at different times during the season.
The second half was also ugly in terms of controlling the basketball. Giving up just five turnovers in the first half, Florida turned it over eight more times to a team that White says it just shouldn’t happen against.
“There’s no excuse in 13 turnovers against a team that allows you to move the ball for the most part,” he said. “They’re tremendous in what they do, but they’re a gap heavy team and the send everything to Luke Kornet and they don’t really speed you up. We sped ourselves up for whatever reason, I’m not sure.”
The Gators had four players score in double digits led by Barry with 15 off of the bench. Allen had his 13, junior guard Chris Chiozza had 11, and senior guard Kasey Hill finished with 10 on the day. Vanderbilt was led by Kornet with 24, forward Jeff Roberson with 15, guard Riley LaChance with 13, and guard Nolan Cressler also with 13.
The loss wasn’t a back breaker for Florida. They played hard, but they came up short in a tough place to play against a team that has a chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament themselves. Still, White and his guys really wanted this one.
“It burns, especially when you find yourself up 12 in the middle of the second half,” he said. “We didn’t play like a veteran team that we are down the stretch. Vanderbilt played with more poise, more composure, and made better decisions. To add to some of the decision making that didn’t help us down the stretch is some porous fouling. We had three or four possessions there with unnecessary fouls sending those guys to the foul line.
“We hate to see this stuff pop up in March. It’s been a long season and we’ve been playing more intelligently, more soundly than that. But all we can do is move on and learn from it and hope to snap back in the SEC Tournament and play our best basketball here late in the season.”
The Gators will next play in the 7 p.m. game Friday in the SEC Tournament, but their foe has yet to be determined. By finishing second in the league after conference play, Florida gets the double-bye while other teams play off on Wednesday and Thursday.