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Sunday December 16, 2012Arizona's Last-Minute Blitz Stuns Gators

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

TUCSON, Ariz. -- The last minute-plus of the first half Saturday night against Arizona was without a doubt the worst stretch of basketball the Florida Gators had played this season.

Until the last minute of the second half.

The eighth-ranked Wildcats, behind relentless and smothering full-court pressure, blitzed the fifth-ranked Gators for the final seven points of the game -- all inside a minute to play, including a driving layup from senior guard Mark Lyons with 7.1 seconds remaining -- to steal a wild 65-64 victory before an adoring and sold-out McKale Center crowd of 14,545.

The crazy comeback came after Florida led by 11 with just under 10 minutes to go and then by six with 58 seconds to go.

The latter spree was when everything went nuts -- all of it bad for the Gators (7-1).

"I told our guys at halftime, if we're going to lose, let's at least make them beat us," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We beat ourselves tonight."

A suffocating Arizona defense certainly was a factor, but that didn't make the shell-shocked UF players feel any better about the game-ending chaos; not after they shot 63.2 percent from the floor (12-for-19) and 67 percent from 3-point range (6-9) after halftime and still blew a double-digit lead.

"I still don't know what happened," UF junior center Patric Young said.

Earlier in the week, Arizona coach Sean Miller said this rare December battle of two top-team and unbeaten marquee programs would have the feel of an NCAA regional final. Considering how the Gators melted down the last two seasons in the Elite Eight, the hollow post-game feeling of this defeat was eerily similar.

But at least this one didn't end the season.

"We just didn't finish," senior guard Mike Rosario said.

Florida led 64-58 when the Wildcats (8-0) called a timeout with 1:17 to play. Kevin Parrom's two free throws 21 seconds later drew Arizona to within four. The Gators struggled to get the ball in bounds and called a timeout, then promptly had the inbound stolen out of the timeout with senior Solomon Hill (game-high 18 points) getting to the rim and cutting UF's lead to 64-62.

Guess what happened on the next inbound?

That turnover/steal got Grant Jerrett to the free throw line, but the freshman hit just one of two, keeping Florida ahead 64-63 and forcing the Wildcats to foul senior guard Kenny Boynton, UF's best free-throw shooter, and sending him to the line for a one-and-one with 21.5 seconds to go.

Boynton, who entered the game hitting 90 percent from the line this season, missed the front end, the Wildcats rebounded and Lyons knifed through the Florida defense 14 seconds later for what proved to be the game-winner. 

McKale erupted into bedlam.

"What we did defensively was as good as anything we've done since I've been here," Miller said after out defending a UF opponent that came into the game ranked No. 2 in the nation in points surrendered. "Doing it against a team of that caliber makes it all the more special."

In the final seven seconds, Donovan could have called a timeout to set a up a play -- another inbounds set, if he dared -- but the ball was throw in quickly after Lyons' basket, with Boynton zipping up the sidelines. By that time, the Gators spacing was bad and Boynton's pass to Rosario (season-high 16 points) in the front court drew a crowd and UF had no chance at a desperation shot.

"We didn't handle the end of the game very well at all," Rosario said.

Or the end of the first half, either.

The Gators were rolling, up 32-21 with 1:20 to play before intermission, having held the Wildcats to 31-percent shooting to that point. That's when guard Nick Johnson (15 points, 3 assists, 4 steals) hit back-to-back 3-pointers on scramble plays, one following a UF turnover.

Florida then had a chance to take the final shot of the half when Boynton (5 points on 2-for-10 shooting overall, 1-for-7 from 3-point range) tried to split a double-team and the ball caromed off a player's foot and into UF's end of the court. Hill scooped it up and dunked the ball with two seconds to go.

So to review:

* An 8-0 run in the final 1:19 of the first half.

* A 7-0 run in the final 57 seconds of the second.

"It was a tale of two halves," Donovan said. "A tale of closing out the halves."

In each circumstance, the Gators compounded one mistake with another, then another, until there was no time left on the clock to make anymore. The second such sequence lost the game.

Florida finished with 14 turnovers, including nine in the second half. Forward Erik Murphy scored 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds, but he also accounted for five giveaways, four after halftime when guarded by the smaller, quicker Hill.

"It was like we felt like we had to rush to get the ball inbounds or get it up court and try to get some time off the clock," Young said. "When you rush, that's usually when turnovers happen."

The Gators have been loose with the ball all season -- remember the 20 turnovers against Wisconsin? -- but in winning the previous seven games by double-digits (and an average margin of victory of 25.3 points) those miscues weren't nearly as glaring as in the down-to-the-wire, big-boy's game that played out on Saturday night on ESPN.

"There is a carelessness with the ball; not being strong with the ball," Donovan said. "This is one of those things where I'm going on and on about turnovers. Now, hopefully we can get their attention in practice and talk about the importance of it."

One of those teaching moments, perhaps.

Or as Rosario said, a lesson about staying in the moment.

"I feel like some guys, in some situations, get stuck on one [bad] play instead of moving on to the next," he said. "That one's over, move on."

Sounds like good advice, especially now.

This game is over and it's going to sting for a few days. But the Gators need to move on ... probably to inbound and ball-security drills.


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