Early on, and even by the midway point of the second half, it seemed the Florida Gators had a chance to run away with a win over the South Carolina Gamecocks in the opening game of SEC play.
After that halfway mark, the game became a rollercoaster that Florida couldn’t find a way off of.
The Gators had a double-digit lead most of the night, but just never could seem to distance themselves enough to get comfortable. South Carolina is a team that will fight and claw its way back if you let it, and it did.
Florida gave up any comfort it might have once had as the minutes started to dwindle in the game. The Gators led 65-56 with 7:17 to go, but they would not make a single field goal for the remainder as they did not make any of their last eight attempts and just one of the last 12.
After that, the Gamecocks went on a 9-0 run to tie the game at 65 with 4:39 remaining.
Keyontae Johnson made a pair of free throws to regain a one-point lead, but it didn’t last long as Chris Silva made a layup to put South Carolina up in the game for the first time since it led 1-0 at the start.
Dontay Bassett then drew a foul and made both of his free throws, but he found himself back at the line again less than a minute later and missed two costly ones. Silva took advantage by making both of his following a foul called on Andrew Nembhard. That made it 69-68 South Carolina with 1:36 on the clock.
Nembhard missed a three the next possession, and the Gamecocks got two chances as they grabbed an offensive rebound on the other end. Johnson eventually came up with a steal, but not before South Carolina had used up 47 seconds of the remaining time.
Florida didn’t look to have any offensive answer, but Kevarrius Hayes drew a late foul on a jump ball. The game and the Gators’ start to the conference season ended up on the shoulders of a 60 percent free throw shooter.
All he had to do was make one, and Florida should have been able to take it to overtime. He missed the first, but made the second after a South Carolina timeout.
It felt like the entire O’Dome took a sigh of relief. The Gamecocks had just 3.5 seconds to make some magic happen. It didn’t seem likely.
But that’s exactly what they did.
Frank Martin planned to let Mike Kotsar make the final inbounds pass, as he had been the guy to practice the play they had planned all season. Kotsar admitted that his arm was sore and he didn’t think he could do it, so Martin put the ball in the hands of Felipe Haase.
He’s probably thanking his lucky stars he did now, because Haase heaved a perfect 90-foot pass all the way down the court that somehow found Silva over a leaping Johnson and Hayes. From there, all Silva had to do was take a couple steps to the basket for an uncontested dunk.
“They executed it to perfection,” said head coach Mike White. “It was a great play. It was a great pass. They sealed, they were prepared and they won the game.”
While South Carolina did everything right on the play, White said his players did not play it to the same level. There was a lot of miscommunication about who guys were supposed to be covering, and Florida paid for it.
The play didn’t take much time, so the Gators still had 2.3 seconds to try execute the same way the Gamecocks had, but they ended up with a much different result as Johnson’s inbounds pass found a South Carolina player instead to close out a devastating 71-69 loss.
Florida struggled to defend for much of the game, and a lot of that can probably be placed on the fact that two starting forwards in Stone and Hayes along with backup Bassett all found themselves in foul trouble.
Stone and Hayes each had a pair of fouls in the first half that forced White to take them out, and all three of the big men ended up with four. That forced the Gators to play with different lineups that caused some mismatches in South Carolina’s favor.
White would not credit too much of the collapse to that though, as he said the Gators did it to themselves and should not have been in that position to pick up so many fouls.
Neither team could get away from the foul trouble with a total of 48 called in the strictly enforced game, but the Gamecocks took advantage a bit more.
“We talked about the foul and the free throw game all week, and they won that by a big margin,” White said. “They deserved to win. They came in here and deserved to win. They outplayed us.”
After such a solid performance last week against Butler, Florida had hoped it could carry that momentum into this game and play with that same offensive production and defensive energy.
Instead, both of those areas were far too inconsistent. White said he feared a letdown like this one could happen if the Gators let the success go to their heads.
That is what happened in practices this week, in shoot around before the game and seemingly in the game as well. It was just not the same team that showed up the time before.
“I’m not stunned, I’m disappointed,” White said. “Our defensive effort wasn’t the same as it’s been. I thought that we felt too good about ourselves all week. I said it to our guys every day … We didn’t have a lot of maturity this week coming off the performance we played against Butler. We didn’t get better this week. South Carolina out-prepared us, outfought us, out-disciplined us.”
On the brighter side of the stat sheet, Locke led the Gators with 17 points, followed by a 10-point, 7 rebound performance from Nembhard and 10 points from Allen. But that could not compare to a balanced 22-point game from South Carolina’s Hassani Gravett and a monster 18-point second half from Silva after he did not score at all in the first 20 minutes.
The Gators will now have to try to pick up the pieces and get ready for another tough week of SEC play as they travel to Arkansas before Tennessee comes to town next weekend.