Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Gators come up short against the Gamecocks

There were no more miracles in Florida’s bag of tricks Sunday afternoon. In reality, the Gators didn’t need a miracle. A few 3-pointers in the second half would have sufficed.

Break down South Carolina’s 77-70 win over the Gators in the NCAA East Regional championship game any way you want, but it comes down to 0-14.

As in 0-14 in the second half from the 3-point line, a sort of dejavu experience after what happened in Columbia back in January when South Carolina held the Gators to a dismal 0-17 effort from the 3-point line and took a 57-53 win.

In that game back in January, the Gators still had their chances to win just as they had their chances to win Sunday, but a couple of 3-pointers sure would have helped.

So would a few defensive stops, particularly in the paint where South Carolina scored 42 points.

“The times we had opportunities to wall up in the paint and not jump and be sound, but we jump and we send their front court guys to the foul line,” Florida coach Mike White lamented after the Gators saw their Final Four hopes crash and burn at Madison Square Garden. “I wish we could have had those back and we could have gone 0-14 and still won the game.”

South Carolina center Chris Silva lived at the foul line. He went 9-12 there. Sindarius Thornwell went 9-10, but the guy who really killed the Gators was Maik Kotsar, who didn’t get to the foul line even once. He didn’t have to. He went 6-10 from the field and got just about any shot he wanted. Take away his 12 points and it’s a totally different game.

It’s also a totally different game if the Gators take care of the basketball. South Carolina scored 20 points off Florida’s 16 turnovers.

South Carolina outscored the Gators 23-13 at the foul line, 42-28 in the paint and held the Gators to an oh-fer from the 3-point line in the second half.

So there are no excuses.

“South Carolina was just better than us,” White said. “Period.”

For a half, however, Florida was the best team. The Gators went 14-25 from the field and 7-12 from the 3-point line in building a 40-33 halftime lead against a South Carolina defense that was basically a no show. The Gators were patient when they had the ball, moved it until they found someone open – usually Justin Leon – and then buried the shot. Leon, who finished the game with 18 points had 13 in the first half thanks largely to a 3-5 effort from the 3-point line.

But as they have far too many times this season, the Gators came out of the halftime locker room stale.

“We talked about not holding onto a lead, not about the next 20 minutes,” White said about his halftime talk.

So it’s not like the Gators weren’t aware of past problems coming back to haunt them, but sometimes you just can’t do anything about it. You can attribute some of the second half problems to South Carolina’s amped up defense. The Gamecocks played with far more energy after halftime and they swarmed the perimeter, determined to take the 3-pointers away. Some of Florida’s 14 second half misses were because of South Carolina forcing up a bad shot, but not all of them.

Some of the misses were wide open. The Gators just couldn’t knock down a shot.

Particularly when the Gators left the locker room to start the second half, they seemed far less patient than in the first 20 minutes. In those first 20 minutes, the Gators thrived by making the extra pass. Too many times in the second half, South Carolina’s 3-2 zone defense was extended and to break it the Gators needed an extra pass or two. Too many times in the second half, Chris Chiozza or Kasey Hill broke down the defense and got into the paint but couldn’t find another Gator converging toward the basket. Translation: too man players spent the second half glued to the floor instead of moving without the ball.

Then there were the issues at the other end of the floor where South Carolina continuously pounded the ball into the paint. The Gamecocks took only 10 3-pointers in the entire game and only three of them came in the second half.

Every time the Gamecocks got the ball in the paint, it seemed they either scored, got fouled or grabbed an offensive rebound to extend the possession.

“They had eight offensive rebounds in the second half as opposed to three in the first half,” White said.

And yet despite all those problems, the Gators were a couple of made shots away from making the Final Four. Just as it was in Columbia back in February, the Gators hung around and hung around and still had chances to win in spite of themselves.

Once South Carolina erased the 7-point halftime deficit, it was a back and forth battle the rest of the way. Florida took its last lead at 63-61 on a Chiozzza layup with 3:41 to go. For the rest of the game, South Carolina either scored in the paint or at the foul line. Of their final 16 points, eight came at the foul line and other six were scored in the paint.

Florida, meanwhile, couldn’t keep up and the game slipped away. There were no miracles to be had like Friday night when UF just refused to lose and scored an 84-83 win over Wisconsin on a most improbable buzzer beater by Chiozza.

But there really wasn’t a need for a miracle Sunday. Just a couple of made 3-pointers in the second half and a couple of defensive stops would have done the job quite nicely.

GAME NOTES: The Gators shot 25-60 from the field (41.7%) and 7-26 (26.9%) from the 3-point line. The Gators scored only 14 second chance points and managed only 4 points on fast breaks. The Gators were 13-14 from the foul line ... South Carolina was 26-53 from the field, 2-10 from the 3-point line and 23-31 from the foul line ... South Carolina, which was playing in its first Elite Eight game ever, now goes to its first Final Four ever. Florida, which has been to five Final Fours, was playing in its fifth Elite Eight game in seven years.

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