Five more minutes. That’s all the Florida Gators needed to secure a defining victory over the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils and take home a championship from the Phil Knight Invitational.
The Gators had complete control nearly the entire night, only allowing the Duke within striking distance a select few times. Unfortunately for Florida, one of those breakdowns came in the final minutes of the game.
It just felt like Florida’s night as it had the top-ranked team in the country down by as many as 17 points midway into the second half. As time dwindled, the Gators’ lead slowly did as well.
Florida held the advantage all the way up until the 1:12 mark when Egor Koulechov fouled Duke’s Gary Trent Jr. and he hit both free throw attempts to give his team an 85-84 lead.
The Gators quickly had a chance to take it back as Trent reached in on Jalen Hudson for a foul on the other end, but the usually-reliable free throw shooter missed his first and only attempt at a one-and-one.
The Blue Devils once again tried to give Florida an opportunity as they did not even get a shot off on the next possession. The Gators were down just one point with 24 seconds to go and the shot clock turned off.
Hudson got a bit careless with the basketball and gave it right back, forcing the Gators to foul with nine seconds remaining.
Two made free throws made three quick points Florida’s only hope for winning a game it had once dominated.
The Gators took the ball down the floor, but no one found a comfortable look, leaving Koulechov to put a prayer up. It did not go, and even if it had, he was not behind the three-point line.
A 2:38 Florida scoring drought to close out the game led to a 15-2 run by Duke. Poor play in the final stretch caused the Gators to leave Portland with an 87-84 loss and move to 5-1 on the season.
“Really tough loss,” said head coach Mike White. “Had a huge opportunity in front of us and really played well for, I would say, 35 minutes and put ourselves in a really good position and just couldn’t finish against a terrific team.”
White did not want to make any excuses for his team about fatigue from a long weekend or anything else, but something just went amiss late in the game. The offense took a few shots too quickly with comfortable leads and just did not appear to have that same confidence it had earlier in the game.
Florida shot just 34.3 percent in the second half and made just one three-pointer after draining seven in the first 20 minutes.
“I thought Duke defended at a high level in the last, I’m just guessing, six-to-eight minutes of the game,” White said. “Not that they didn’t defend earlier on, but I thought they just really tightened up and forced some contested ones late. If one of them goes, maybe it’s different, maybe we can stymie a couple of those runs. We had a couple of shots there in the paint that you wish one of them had gone. I thought that they were really good down the stretch defensively.”
Hudson gave Florida’s best effort of the game with 24 points (17 in the second half) and 10 rebounds.
KeVaughn Allen (17), Koulechov (15) and Chris Chiozza (13) all had double figure scoring nights, but Allen and Chiozza went missing offensively in the second half, combing for just four points.
No one in the game was better than Duke freshman sensation Marvin Bagley III, and he gave Florida all it could handle with 30 points and 15 rebounds. The Gators struggled to stop him inside, and he made them pay at the foul line with 9-of-10 made free throw attempts.
“I don’t know, honestly,” Chiozza said on how to handle Bagley. “You’ve just gotta hope he misses shots and keep him from getting his own rebound and other people’s rebounds. He’s just a talented kid and he’s a great player. Sometimes you can’t stop the good players. You’ve just gotta hope they miss.”
Florida may have lost some of its poise in the end, but take out five minutes of play, and it could be sitting as arguably the biggest threat in all of college basketball right now. Of course, there is no way to get those minutes back, and being so close to victory makes coming up short sting even more, but this team proved a lot this weekend.
The Gators come away with a decisive win over Stanford, a hard-fought double overtime victory in what was practically a home game for Gonzaga and a good 30 minutes of taking the best team in the country behind the woodshed. There are no moral victories, but a lot that can be learned from this moving forward in the season.
“It just showed that we’ve got some toughness in us,” Chiozza said. “That was questionable coming into this tournament. Us as a team, Coach White tells us every day that we’ve gotta get tough. And I think this tournament, we showed we were a tough team, one of the toughest teams in the country.”