The margin for error with this Florida basketball team has always been razor thin. As a team without superstars who you knew were going to get theirs every night no matter who they played, the Gators had to rely on their ability to compensate whenever someone had an off night or when the ball just wouldn’t go in the basket. Usually, the collective force of an entire team working together was enough to save the day in those close encounters but Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the boat that Florida rode through rough seas and smooth waters on the way to 30 straight sprung too many leaks.
Saturday was the first time all season that the Gators didn’t have answers. In Florida’s two previous losses, you could point a finger at who wasn’t on the bench or on the floor to understand why the Gators lost the game. Saturday, Florida was at full strength, but this time the combination of the Gators’ own mistakes and a well-conceived game plan at both ends of the floor by UConn coach Kevin Ollie dropped the final curtain on a group of kids whose ability to connect made them the consummate team.
To win on this day, the Gators had to play their absolute best and they didn’t. There is no sense trying to sugar coat Florida’s 63-53 loss to UConn. The Gators didn’t play well on an evening when they couldn’t afford more than a handful of mistakes but much of that can be attributed to a UConn plan whose focus was to take Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II completely out of the game.
Frazier hit a 3-pointer in the first minute of the game to give the Gators a 3-0 lead. He got only two more shots the rest of the game and missed them both. Frazier came into the game averaging 12.6 points and nearly three 3-pointers per game.
Wilbekin, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and MVP of both the SEC Tournament and South Region as the Gators advanced to the Final Four, got his second basket of the game with 9:48 to go in the first half on a 12-foot jumper that was highly contested. That was his second shot. He went 0-7 the rest of the way. Wilbekin came into the game averaging 13.4 points and nearly two 3-pointers a game. He was 0-3 from the 3-point line.
So do the math.
Subtract 19 points that you count on. Subtract the stretch you get of the other team’s defense when Frazier and Wilbekin are getting their usual quota of 3-pointers.
Do that and the numbers come up bad for Florida.
Some of the shortage has to do with Frazier’s inability to put the ball on the deck to clear a defender. Frazier has got to at least present the threat of putting the ball on the floor or there isn’t a defender in the world who won’t crowd him and take away the 3-point threat. That’s what UConn did, sometimes with Shabazz Napier, sometimes with DeAndre Daniels.
UConn took a page out of the Florida defensive formula to defend Wilbekin. Ryan Boatright got the primary assignment but he got plenty of help and the result was an uncharacteristic four turnovers for a guy who had gone 94 consecutive minutes prior to this game without turning it over. Boatright was able to keep Wilbekin out of the lane with his quickness and the help he got on the perimeter forced Wilbekin to take shots from spots he usually doesn’t shoot from.
Now, UConn didn’t only defend Wilbekin and Frazier, but by taking them out of the game, they threw off everybody else. Casey Prather scored 15 and for the first 30 minutes was Florida’s only offensive threat. Patric Young got it going in the final 10 minutes when he scored 16 of his 19 points, but there was no one else to pick up the slack.
In marching their way to the Final Four by taking out 30 straight opponents, defense was always the Gators’ trump card. Even in those games when there were too many blanks fired down at the other end, the Gators were able to rely on their defense to keep things on an even keel until they found enough offense to put the game away.
But there wasn’t near enough defense Saturday.
Florida did manage to hold both Shabazz Napier and Boatright below their season scoring averages, but they had no answers for DeAndre Daniels, whose back-to-back 3-pointers lit the fire for UConn in the first half when the Huskies erased a 12-point deficit to take a 25-22 lead at the intermission. Napier scored only 12 points and four of them came from the foul line. Boatright got 13. Daniels, however, scored 20 to go with 10 rebounds and he got some unexpected help from Niels Giffey, who scored a surprising 11 points without hitting a 3-pointer.
When the Gators clawed their way back to within three at 43-40 with 8:03 remaining, they needed stops on the defensive end but when little-used freshman Terrence Samuel blew through the Gators for an easy layup the Florida boat sprung a couple more leaks. Then Kasey Hill lost the ball on the dribble to Boatright who converted it into a layup at the other end.
Just like that it was 47-40, still a close enough game to win but only if Florida got stops and this was a night when the Gators couldn’t afford any defensive breakdowns because the offense wasn’t getting the job done. When Florida could only get a Prather free throw in its next two possessions while Daniels was getting free twice, once on a jumper and the next on a lop dunk off a Napier pass, it was pretty clear there would be no magic on this night.
To Florida’s credit, the Gators never stopped playing hard even when it was clear they didn’t have what they needed to stage a miracle comeback. UConn had the better game plan, played the better game and on this night, at least, was the better team.
This was not the ending that Gator fans envisioned nor the one that Florida’s fantastic four seniors wanted so desperately, but it should not detract from what these guys accomplished. They won 120 games in their four years. They made it to the Elite Eight three straight years and the Final Four in their final season. They set an SEC record by going 18-0 in the regular season and capped that with a 3-0 run for the SEC Tournament title. They won 30 games in a row and set a school record with 36 wins in a season.
The seniors, who you know are feeling the enormous pain of seeing their dream of dreams come up short, talked all season long about chasing greatness. These guys so desperately wanted to leave their mark on Florida basketball and go down as a truly great team.
Maybe they didn’t get the national championship they wanted but they don’t have to worry about their place in Florida basketball history. Long before they got to the Final Four the greatness they were chasing had already become a part of who they were. These guys were special and they were indeed a great team, just one that came up short in reaching their ultimate goal.