The Florida Gators knew coming into Saturday night’s game that Georgia was a dangerous team. The Bulldogs hadn’t tasted a win in more than a month, but had lost their previous four games to some of the top teams in the conference by a combined nine points.
Florida looked more like the 1-14 SEC team in the matchup as it fell 61-55 on its home court.
Georgia asserted itself from the tip, making five of its first six shots (all in the paint).
A few minutes later, back-to-back three-pointers from Tyree Crump and Nicolas Claxton stretched the Bulldogs’ lead to 18-8.
A couple tough jumpers from Noah Locke with free throws from Isaiah Stokes sandwiched in between pushed the Gators to a 6-0 run, cutting the deficit to four points with 7:41 left in the first half.
KeVaughn Allen hit a three to make it a one-point game, but unfortunately for Florida, that’s about all he would do the entire night.
After an answer from Georgia, Jalen Hudson made his first three of the game to tie it at 24-24.
Then, in the final minute, Mike Okauru stepped up when least expected. The sophomore point guard came in after Andrew Nembhard went to the locker room late in the half with back spasms. He made the most of it by draining a triple that gave the Gators their very first lead.
Neither team could get a shot off in the final possessions of the half, but somehow Florida took a 28-27 advantage to the locker room.
The momentum carried over into the second half as Keyontae Johnson scored his first points on back-to-back transition layups. Kevarrius Hayes followed it with a block on defense, an offensive rebound and a layup to make it 34-27 less than two minutes in.
The Bulldogs brought it back to a one-possession game, but Locke came through again with a three to stay up by six.
Little did Florida know that wouldn’t last long and would be its last lead of the game. In just over two minutes, Georgia used an 8-0 run to go back up 41-39.
On top of letting the Bulldogs get back in a rhythm offensively, the Gators couldn’t find the basket. From that three-pointer by Locke with 13:54 to go, Florida did not make another field goal for nearly nine minutes.
The Gators managed to stay alive with free throws and were still within a point with 4:13 on the clock.
Claxton always seemed to have an answer, but a three from Hudson and a jumper from Nembhard within the final two minutes gave Florida a chance.
But giving up a layup to Jordan Harris with 27 seconds remaining pretty much sealed the deal as the Gators put it in the hands of Allen and he could not deliver in the final meaningful possession.
“It’s disheartening and disappointing,” said Hayes. “I feel like, as a leader of this team, I should’ve put more emphasis on how we had to be prepared for this game. It’s a very good league and anybody can come in here and potentially steal one. We just handed it right to them.”
The Gators didn’t play anywhere near the level they had for a majority of the five-game winning streak.
Florida couldn’t have asked for a worse time for its defense to hit a wall. Georgia shot 56 percent in the game (compared to 38 percent by the Gators), led by a career-high 25 points from Claxton on 9-for-12 shooting.
On top of that, Florida grabbed 12 offensive boards but came away with just six second-chance points.
This isn’t something new. The Gators have struggled to produce at home all season long, with five losses in the O’Dome.
“Our last home game, our edge was very similar to what it was tonight,” said head coach Mike White. “I think certain teams can get casual at home, and we’re certainly one of them. Not for a lack of communicating about it, and we’re gonna continue to talk about it and try to find ways to bring the same amount of edge and focus. We’ve got another opportunity here soon.”
Now, that opportunity is much bigger than originally expected.
Had Florida pulled out a win in this game, it likely would have secured its place in the NCAA Tournament. A poor loss to one of the worst teams in the conference sets the Gators way back from the surge they’ve been on these last few weeks.
A win over the LSU Tigers on senior night is the only way Florida can go into the final regular season game and the SEC Tournament feeling comfortable. The Gators have overcome a lot of adversity this year, but beating the Tigers for a second time is going to be a tall task.