The Florida Gators basketball season came to an end on Sunday with a 77-70 loss to South Carolina in the NCAA Tournament East Regional Final. The Gators found themselves on the other end of a hard-fought game as they could not close things out in the final minutes.
Florida’s chances seemed good after playing a relatively poor first half and still taking a 40-33 lead into halftime. A strong start to the second half could have been all the Gators needed to run away with the game, but that story did not play out.
South Carolina cut Florida’s lead to just one point less than four minutes into the second half and took its first lead of the half 49-48 with 11:28 remaining. From there, two aggressive teams would battle it out, going back and forth for the next nine minutes.
Neither team would take a lead of more than two points over that span. South Carolina finally ended the back and forth, going up 67-63 with 1:55 to go.
The Gators would bring it back within two a couple of times, but the Gamecocks would put the final dagger in with a Sindarius Thornwell free-throw to go up by five with 20 seconds left. Then a steal and a Duane Notice dunk at the other end capped things off as South Carolina took the game 77-70.
“Obviously very, very heartbreaking,” said Mike White. “To make it this far, you’re right there with a chance to go to the Final Four, you’re up seven at halftime, doing some good things and really we weren’t playing our best basketball in the first half … We had some lack of communication, yet we’re up seven. And for whatever reason, in the second half, we couldn’t match that same defensive intensity.”
Following the game, 0-for-14 from three in the second half was the stat that stood out the most after the Gators were 7-for-12 from long range in the first half. The same shots Florida took in the first 20 minutes just were not falling in the second half of play.
White, however, did not feel the lack of productions from beyond the arc to end the game was his team’s’ downfall.
“South Carolina was better than us. Period,” White said. “It’s funny, until you said 0-14, I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know we were 0-14. I know we were really struggling to make a shot, I didn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t know to what extent it was … But a couple of those possessions I wish we could have back. The times that we had opportunities to wall up in the paint and not jump and be sound, but we jump and we send their front court guys to the foul line. I wish we could have had those back, and we could have gone 0-14 and still won the game. Obviously, you want to make shots, it’s a big part of basketball. I don’t know why. I know they’re a terrific defense. We took some contested ones. We had a few open ones, just they just didn’t fall for us.”
South Carolina’s defense forced Florida into 16 turnovers. On offense, the Gamecocks worked their way to the line for 31 free-throw attempts, more than double of Florida’s attempts. The Gators could have used John Egbunu’s presence inside this game, as South Carolina abused Florida in the paint with a 42-28 edge.
“They’re just scoring the ball a lot better,” said senior guard Kasey Hill. “They’re making shots. [PJ] Dozier’s attacking, [Sindarius] Thornwell is being himself and they got the two big guys, they’re scoring, too. So, they’re always going to play defense, but they’re scoring the ball a lot better.”
Hill was one of three Florida players to score in double-figures, as he put up 11 points while also dishing five assists in his final game. Coming off a career game, KeVaughn Allen had 13 points.
Senior forward Justin Leon was just one point shy of his career high with 18 points, going 7-for-15 from the field and 3-for-9 from three. While his offensive performance was not enough to give the Gators a win and all his hopes for his final season did not come to fruition, he still tried to take the positives away from the game and his career.
“Things may not go your way, but you never know what you’ll be capable of, you just keep going,” said Leon. “I felt like that because I know a lot of people didn’t think, didn’t have us going this far at the beginning of the season, probably didn’t even have us making the tournament. We just faced adversity and just got to be tough and keep moving forward, just like now. Who knows where I’m going to be after this, but all I can do is just keep my head high and hope for the best when I get done with the season.”
While Florida’s Final Four hopes were dashed, this team overachieved in many ways this season. There is a lot to look forward to in the future of Florida basketball as the culture continues to grow and White continues to leave his stamp on the program.
“These are great young men, who have grown as people, been model citizens, been awesome to work with,” White said about his team. “And selfishly as a staff you say, ‘My goodness, we had a chance to go to the Final Four’. I’m sick for these guys … Especially our seniors. Our young guys, we have a lot to work for here, starting next week, but our seniors have been awesome to work with. I’m really proud of them and they have a lot to be proud of.”