Decision time

For nearly 11 minutes Wednesday night, the Florida Gators were playing like a team that had finally figured it all out. Playing the kind of basketball that you expect of a smart, mature team, the Gators erased a five-point deficit and turned it into a seven-point lead. The only thing that stood in the way of an impressive road win over South Carolina was maintaining their poise for the final 2:27.

Even that final 2:27 can be narrowed down to the final 3.3 seconds because that’s all it took for the Gamecocks to erase all the good that was accomplished in that stretch of 11 minutes when the Gators were finally playing the way Billy Donovan has been coaching them to play the last two seasons. The difference in a turning the corner win and a right back to where we started heartbreaking loss is the maturity to finish.

South Carolina finished. The Gators didn’t.

It’s way too easy to point fingers after a loss like this. Nick Calathes missed the front end of a one-and-one with 13.3 seconds left. If he hits both free throws, the Gators win the game. Chandler Parsons missed the front end of a one-and-one with 3.3 seconds left. If he makes them both, it takes a three-pointer to tie. If he makes one, then Zam Fredrick’s layup would have simply tied the game. When Parsons misses the free throw, if Alex Tyus moves his feet and gets in the way, there is no way Mike Holmes can make that perfect 70-foot pass to Zam Fredrick, who streaked behind the Florida defense, bounced the ball once and dropped in a layup as the horn sounded. Dan Werner got caught flat-footed. He was paying attention to Devan Downey and let Fredrick get behind him.

Those are glaring mistakes but let’s get real. We only notice the mistakes at the end and we forget about all the other mistakes made during the game. A finish on a layup in the first half … a missed blockout assignment early in the second half … three or four shots too early in the shot clock when there was nobody in rebounding position.

We can go on and on here.

Rather than a win that would have had us talking about how the Gators were starting to grow up, we get a loss that has folks questioning everything from the heart of the team to Billy Donovan’s ability to coach.

Should we be disappointed with this loss? Absolutely. Should we be particularly upset with the way the Gators snatched defeat from the jaws of victory? Once again, the answer is absolutely. When you’re this close to winning, the last thing you expect is to lose on a play that looks like a miracle but is really the culmination of several mistakes.

But sometimes the unexplainable happens. Sometimes you lose the game that you know in your heart you shouldn’t have lost. Just ask Florida’s football teams in 1996, 2006 and 2008. Those three national championship teams share the common bond of a loss that should never have happened. They also share the common bond of rebounding from the unexplainable to win a national championship.

Now, don’t read into this that I am predicting the Gators will rebound from this loss at South Carolina to win the national championship. I don’t even know if they will make the NCAA Tournament this year but I think they’ve got a chance to get into the Big Dance. And, I think that they’ll be serious contenders to go deep into the NCAA Tournament in 2010 and 2011 because there will be enough talent and maturity on hand to make it happen.

But for now, they are a work in progress and if you watched everything that happened in between three-pointers by South Carolina’s Evaldus Baniulius — the first with 14:23 left in the game and the second with 2:27 remaining — then you saw definite progress. You saw solid defense. You saw people rotating. You saw people blocking out. You saw good ball movement. You saw good decisions. You saw clutch shooting.

That’s why the Gators went from a 50-45 deficit to a 67-60 lead. Go back a year and the Gators would have tried to shoot their way out of trouble. That was their solution to everything. Even earlier this year, that would have been Florida’s M.O. Yet, for 11 minutes Wednesday night, they played like a team that understands that you can’t always depend on a hot shooting hand to play good basketball.

Maybe you’re not all that impressed with 11 minutes of fully focused basketball at both ends of the court but if you watch the game closely then you’re aware of how it ebbs and flows. It is a 40-minute game but it’s usually decided by one or two stretches of solid play on both ends of the court.

What separates the good teams from the teams that dominate is the ability to put two or three of those good stretches of basketball together every game. The first good stretch gets control of the game and the second and third act as the knockout punch.

It’s all too simple to say that the Gators have to hit free throws down the stretch and remember their assignments in the final 3.3 seconds if they are going to grow from this loss to South Carolina. It’s a far tougher task to ask them to start stringing together more of those 11-minute stretches when they play the game the way it’s supposed to be played but that’s what it’s going to take if the Gators are to be anything more than a .500 team in Southeastern Conference play.

If the Gators go 8-8 in SEC play like they did last year, say hello to the NIT, a tournament that opens its doors to both good teams from bad conferences and schizophrenic teams from good conferences that never figure out how the game is supposed to be played. If this Florida team aspires beyond the NIT, then it’s decision time. They can be the team that lost its focus at the foul line and stood flat-footed when a play had to be made in the final 3.3 seconds Wednesday night or they can be the team that grows up and starts putting together enough of those fully-focused spurts to win enough SEC games to get back into the NCAA Tournament.

Even though they’re still re-stocking the cupboard, the Gators have enough talent to get into the NCAA Tournament and there is no question that Billy Donovan is one of the best coaches in the college game. But even the best coach can’t make a team decide to grow up. That part, they have to do on their own.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.