Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
The lone opportunity to do so ended in disaster at Arizona two months ago.
So did the second Tuesday night in their first league game in the Midwest.
The Missouri Tigers, with their full compliment of players this time, erased a 13-point deficit with just under 11 minutes to go while the fifth-ranked Gators clanged 3-pointers and free-throws down the stretch before giving way in a 63-60 loss in front a zealous and sold-out Mizzou Arena crowd of 15,061.
Forward Laurence Bowers, who sat out last month's 31-point loss in Gainesville with a sprained knee, scored 17 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and sank an uncontested 15-footer with 1:14 to play that gave the Tigers the lead for good.
After that, it was missed 3-point chaos for the Gators (21-4, 11-2), whose lead over Alabama in the Southeastern Conference race shrank to 1 1/2 games with five to go.
"It's something we have to work on as a team to reach our full potential and get to where we want to go," senior guard Mike Rosario said of finishing stronger. "If we keep having these types of performances and can't close out games, it's going to put us in a tough spot."
The only real way to work on such scenarios is dealing with them when they come. Unfortunately for UF, the most high-profile reference points of these circumstances have have been crushing debacles, from Arizona this year to the Louisville game in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament last season (11-point lead with 8 minutes to go) and even Butler in the same round the year before that (up 9 with 9 to go).
Each of those looked hauntingly similar to what played out against the Tigers (19-7, 8-5), who improved to 15-0 at home this season and notched a huge win for the NCAA resume.
"This is very big for our team," Bowers said.
The combination of Missouri's defense and Florida's impatience on offense led to the Gators taking 33 shots from behind the 3-point line, basically rendering center Patric Young (2 points, 4 field-goal attempts in 26 minutes) and any low-post element a non-factor.
"We settled for too many 3s," senior guard Kenny Boynton said.
In doing so, UF's usually crisp and unselfish ball movement got stagnant, as the Gators finished with just 10 assists (six below their average) and 15 turnovers while shooting just over 40 percent from the floor and a 30 from the arc.
"Ten assists and 15 turnovers, that's not who we are," Coach Billy Donovan said.
Until the Gators prove otherwise, they're not closers, either.
UF led the game for the first 37 minutes, including up 49-36 after a Scottie Wilbekin free throw with 10:54 remaining. They weren't shooting great, but the Gators were doing a job on the glass against the league's best rebounding team, with backup forward Casey Prather (7 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals), despite giving inches and pounds to the bigger, posting Tigers, was doing a nice job making like Will Yeguete (out with a knee injury).
But the Tigers, after starting 2-for-15 front long range, rattled in back-to-back 3s -- the first from Jabari Brown (12 points), the second from Earnest Ross (11 points, 4 rebounds) to cut the Florida lead to single digits.
Those two shots jump-started Mizzou on a 27-11 run to end the game, with the Tigers taking their first lead of the night after UF senior guard Kenny Boynton missed a 3-pointer and Phil Pressey (7 points, 10 assists, 3 steals) raced to a basket in transition, was fouled and made the free throw to put Mizzou up 59-57 with 2:51 to go.
It was Pressey, remember, who had just two points and 10 turnovers in UF's 83-53 clobbering of Missouri on Jan. 19.
"I thought he did a terrific job running his team," Donovan said.
Scottie Wilbekin's 3-pointer with 1:39 left temporarily silenced the home crowd and gave UF a 60-59 lead -- which was also temporary. Pressey drove and found Bowers wide open at the elbow to give the Tigers a 1-point lead.
Again, it was a missed 3-pointer and, again, from Boynton, with the Tigers rebounding and spreading their offense. Pressey was off on a long jumper with the shot clock winding down and Ross rebounded, only to tumble to the floor and get called for traveling with 18 seconds to go.
In the ensuing UF timeout, Donovan called for some offensive action that would get Wilbekin driving into the lane and either looking to score or kicking the ball out, figuring the Tigers, being in the double-bonus, would be hesitant to foul.
Wilbekin, though, passed the ball to Boynton earlier than Donovan would have liked. Boynton, rather than driving, rose up for a 25-foot 3-pointer shot that banged off the rim; his third miss from distance in the final three minutes.
"I put a shimmy move on him and thought I had created some space. It just didn't go down," Boynton said. "I thought I had a clean look.'"
Not clean enough, according to his coach.
"No, I did not want that at all," Donovan said. "When you're down one, you want to create some penetration."
The Tigers rebounded, with Keion Bell swishing two free throws with 3.1 seconds left to push the lead to three.
Rosario (14 points) had a pretty good look from the corner at the buzzer, but the ball sailed well over the rim and the Gators were left to answer more questions about blowing big leads, getting loose on defense, shooting too many 3s and going 6-for-12 from the free-throw line, including 4-for-10 in the second half with three missed one-and-one front ends.
"A lot of things hurt us in this game," Donovan said.
This one will hurt for a few days.
Not only because it was a game the Gators could have won, but because it looked painfully familiar to those crushing come-from-ahead defeats still stuck in so many orange and blue basketball heads.