The Gators have been holding their breath for Jalen Hudson to breakout like he did on Wednesday, but on a night he put up 33 points, Florida needed him to score 35.
No loss this season has left the Gators as heartbroken as the 79-78 overtime final to LSU in the O’Dome.
Twice, Florida found itself down a point with the shot clock turned off and a chance to seal the deal.
The first came with 22.5 seconds left in regulation. Just seconds before, Hudson came up with a game-changing steal from Tremont Waters and took it down the court for a dunk.
That left the Gators in position to foul the Tigers, and they did, sending Skylar Mays to the line. Mays missed the front end of a one-and-one, Keyontae Johnson grabbed the rebound and Hudson hit what appeared to be the three-pointer of his life out of timeout.
With Florida up 72-70, LSU had just six seconds to try to muster something up. As it turns out, that’s more than enough for Waters.
The Tigers opted not to call timeout and put him in the driver’s seat. He drove it all the way down the court for a layup to put the two teams in their second overtime meeting of the season.
LSU started the third period off strong with five straight points before Hudson hit a jumper to get things back under control.
Naz Reid answered with one of his own, but Johnson found Andrew Nembhard for a layup soon after, making it 79-76 Tigers. Reid fouled Kevarrius Hayes going up for a rebound with 2:22 remaining, and he redeemed himself by making both free throws after missing a key one earlier in the game.
Those would be the final points by either team.
The teams traded defensive stops in the final minutes, including a slightly questionable no-call on an attempted layup by Hudson with 42 seconds left. Officials ruled it a blocked shot by LSU’s Kavell Bigby-Williams, but it could have easily been called goal tending and put Florida ahead.
Instead, the Gators needed another stop and a rebound, which they got, leaving 7.8 seconds on the clock following the timeout.
In the most urgent moment of the game, Nembhard walked the ball up out of the inbounds play. Tick, tick, tick. Fans were either gasping for air or screaming at him to do something with the ball.
He finally gave it up to the guy who had been Florida’s savior all night, but Hudson got tripped up trying to attack LSU’s zone defense. Johnson picked up the ball and kicked it to KeVaughn Allen in the corner.
Allen hadn’t done much at all since Florida’s opening possession of the game, but he had a chance to make it all right and end his final home game on the right note. Despite having a decent look and very little time to do much other than let it fly, he chose to drive it and could not get a shot up before time expired.
“We had a golden opportunity,” said head coach Mike White. “And to not get a shot off on your last possession is just very disheartening. We had done so many positive things in order to put ourselves in that position.”
As for the lack of urgency leading up to that, White couldn’t come up with much of an explanation other than a freshman lapse in judgment.
“We’ve addressed it a hundred times,” he said. “I’m honest about my deficiencies. We continue to challenge the guys … With that said, Andrew is a true freshman starting at the point. He knew we had one timeout left. That had been communicated to him. Regardless of whether or not we even wanted the timeout, we needed to get a push there.”
Before the overtime drama, the Gators started the game quite well, holding a lead over the Tigers for the first seven minutes. Then, it seemed LSU couldn’t miss a shot (it made 9 of 11 at one point) while Florida couldn’t hold onto the ball.
That helped the Tigers take control and push their lead to as many as 11 in the first half. The Gators managed to bring it back within three by halftime, but said they felt very fortunate for that after how poorly they played for much of the half.
Florida regained the lead in the opening minutes of the second half with plays from all three freshmen.
Johnson scored the first four points, then Locke hit a transition three after a Hayes steal (with some assistance from Nembhard), then Johnson grabbed a steal, Locke found Nembhard and Nembhard drained a triple for the perfect freshman trifecta.
That sequence put the Gators back on top 41-39. After LSU tied it, Johnson answered with another three at the very end of the shot clock. From there, it became the Hudson show.
In just over six minutes, Hudson put his team on his shoulders to score 18 straight Florida points. The offensive production of Hudson alone was enough to build the lead to eight points with 6:15 to go. But two wide open LSU three-pointers with a put-back dunk sandwiched in between was all it took to make it a tie game.
Had the Gators been able to keep the Tigers off the offensive boards late in regulation (and maybe gotten some offensive help for Hudson), things might have turned out much differently.
LSU outrebounded Florida by 10, including 20 offensive rebounds for 20 second chance points. And those points seemed to come at just the right time for the Tigers.
Hudson finished in double figures for the sixth straight game, and he looked even better than his old self on Wednesday, but a season-high 33 points just wasn’t enough. While he performed well, it didn’t feel bittersweet to him. Just bitter.
“I’m sad,” Hudson said. “I wish I could’ve left out of here on a W. I’m sad for the other guys, too. I just gave it all I had.”
Johnson (15) and Locke both scored in double figures as well, as Locke broke Florida’s all-time freshman record for three-pointers in a single season early in the game. Johnson led the team with 4 steals and blocked two shots.
Another senior laid everything he had out on the court, just as he has every game of his career. Hayes grabbed 15 rebounds, paired with 8 points, 3 steals and a couple blocks.
Allen was the one senior not on his game. He finished with just 4 points on 1-for-6 shooting and made the poor decision on the final play. It’s been a rough few games for him, and the Gators disparately need him to step back up if they have any shot of getting back in the tournament.
It’s an almost impossible task, but Florida is going to have to steal one from Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Saturday to enter the SEC Tournament with any level of comfort.
“It’s our last opportunity of the regular season,” Hudson said. “We’ll just try to give it everything we have like we did tonight. I mean, that’s all we really can do is give it everything we have.”