As the clock winded down, Alex Murphy turned around and wrapped Jake Kurtz in a huge bear hug.
The Florida Gators (15-15, 8-9 SEC) had just defeated the Texas A&M Aggies (20-9, 11-6 SEC) 66-62 on Senior Night.
Kurtz and guard Lexx Edwards were honored before the game and were then given a win by their teammates to send them out of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center for the last time.
Murphy took the time to congratulate Kurtz on all he’s accomplished as a Gator.
“I just told him I was happy for him,” said Murphy.
“I was proud of him. I’ve known Jake for a long time, even before I came here… I got a little emotional at the end there, I was happy for him. The road that he’s had to travel to get where he is now is still, it’s unbelievable, it’s an inspiring story and I’m very happy for him.”
Freshman Devin Robinson has only had a year with the seniors, but he took a moment to express his gratitude for their time as well.
“As time clicked out, I seen them and I just dapped them up,” Robinson told reporters afterwards, adding, “and was just like ‘This is for you and I love you guys, just thanks for helping me get better every day. I love you guys.’”
It was Kurtz’s best friend Dorian Finney-Smith who got the Gators rolling after getting down early.
The Aggies opened on a 10-0 run before Finney-Smith checked at 15:55. His presence flipped a switch for the otherwise stagnant offense, much like it did versus Tennessee when he returned from a three game suspension.
Only 22 seconds after taking the court, Doe-Doe tipped in a Kasey Hill layup and finally put Florida on the board. Eli Carter quickly followed with a three and the Gators set off on a 12-2 run to tie things up. The basket that made it 12 all was actually a Finney-Smith free throw, one of his three on the night. He finished as the Gators leading scorer with 12 points, going 4-7 from the field, including 2-3 from downtown in 20 minutes of play before fouling out with 1:40 left in the game.
With just over 3 minutes left in the first half Aggies Jalen Jones hit a three to give his team a 23-22 lead. It would be their last of the game.
Down on the other end, Kurtz shot up a long ball that wouldn’t fall. But Finney-Smith was there to do his normal rebounding work (he had seven total in the game) and he was able to grab this one for a long pass back to Kurtz. It was a bad one, but Kurtz held on to it.
On the drive to the basket, Jake was actually poked in the eye, but in a play that Billy Donovan said encapsulated his career, Kurtz was able to finish the layup to pull the Gators within one before falling to the ground. He left the game for medical attention but did return with less than a minute to play in the second half. Finishing with his team at home was important for Kurtz, the even keel guy who had a rare show of emotion and tears during the pre-game celebration.
“We haven’t had the greatest year,” Kurtz admits, “especially at home, lost a couple games here at home, so to be able to go out on top my last game ever here means a lot.”
Going out on top was threatened by the Aggies rebounding, who grabbed 11 more than Florida and scored 13-second chance points; but the Gators biggest threat was Alex Caruso. The games leading scorer ended with 20 total including a layup to open scoring in the second half. A steal and a three pointer by Caruso all helped make it two-point game before the Gators went on a 14-0 run.
The run was bookended by Alex Murphy who opened it with two free throws and had a steal and layup before TAMU scored again. He threw in some defensive stops during as well, all leading to a performance that Donovan says gave the team a shot of energy they needed.
“He had a couple of lapses defensively where he needs to do a little bit better but he gave us a really really good boost and I think for the most part Alex always plays with pretty good energy.”
Devin Robinson agreed saying, “Alex stepped up. That’s what we need, energy of the bench. Anybody can step up at any time and I’m proud of him.”
Robinson himself also stepped up, including an And-one during the 14-0 stretch that sent the Gators up buy 14 and lit a fire under fans in the O-Dome.
“Coach just told us to come out with energy off the bench,” Robinson said following his 10-point, four-rebound performance.
“That’s what we want to do, that’s what we need to do, so we just came out with excitement, just played with energy and passion and just try to get the win.”
That was the key that Murphy said was present tonight but has been missing the majority of the season.
“You just want to play hard consistently,” Murphy explained.
“At prior points in the year, if we’d missed some shots, if we turned the ball over that’d effect us on the other end. But you see when we are locked in on the defensive end, that’s what led to the run; great pick and roll coverage, lots of different things on the defensive end. When you do that, shots just sort of go on, and we made some free throws during that stretch.”
While they made free throws during that stretch, the charity stripe almost spelled downfall for the Gators yet again late in the game. With 1:58 left to play, the Aggies had pulled within seven and began fouling. Florida shot 18 free throw attempts during that time, making eight of them. Chris Chiozza, who ended the night with 10 points overall, went 2-6 from the free throw line in that span, and 4-12 over all. His 33% and the Gators team 52.6% was just barely enough and Robinson is not ok with “barely enough”.
“I told [Chiozza] tomorrow we’re gonna get at least 300 free throws up at least. We’re going to the free throw line and he’s gonna shoot as many as he can and make as many as possible. I mean he doesn’t really miss free throws often but tonight he had an off night so we just gotta get back in the gym and get better.”
Donovan sarcastically added, “We would’ve had a good scoring night if we’d shoot a halfway decent percentage from the free throw line.”
But it’s a learning experience, especially for the young freshman, and Donovan sees it as the best teacher they could have.
“I told Chiozza, ‘I hope they keep fouling you the whole game. I hope you gotta go up there 30 times.’ They have to go through that”, he admitted.
In the end though, they did in fact get through it, sending out their seniors with one last win at home.
Its given Devin Robinson hope for their future.
“We knew we could do that like the whole year, we just gotta get going. Once we start hitting shots, we could be the best team in the country.”
For now though, the Gators will have to settle with just facing the actual best team in the country. Florida travels to Lexington, Kentucky on Saturday for their second showdown with the undefeated undeterred and unfazed Wildcats. The regular season finale will tip off at 2pm on CBS.