Florida’s NCAA Championship hopes ended Saturday night in Des Moines, Iowa. For the second consecutive year, the Gators fell in the Round of 32 to a higher seeded opponent.
No. 10 seed Florida hung around for the first half, but in the second half, No. 2 seed Michigan became more than the Gators could handle.
The Wolverines dominated in the paint all game long and asserted themselves early by getting their first six points off dunks.
Meanwhile, the Gators were keeping up with help from hot shooting beyond the arc. Five of Florida’s first six made field goals came from three-point range.
After Michigan went up 15-6 six minutes in, Noah Locke answered with a three and Jalen Hudson banked in one of his own to bring it back to a one-point game.
A few minutes later, Locke came through to tie it 21-21 with a turnaround jumper. Kevarrius Hayes, who had been struggling after a strong performance last game (and in the last several weeks), took a feed from KeVaughn Allen for a layup to give Florida its first lead since the opening minutes.
As it turned out, that would be its last. And it only lasted 23 seconds as the Wolverines answered right back the following possession to tie it 23-23 with 6:26 to go in the half.
Michigan stretched its lead to four points over the following minutes. The Gators brought it within a point a couple times before the end of the half, but went to the locker room trailing 32-28.
They probably should have stayed in the locker room a little longer, because whatever the halftime message was, it did not work.
The Wolverines scored the first 11 points of the second half in just over two minutes. When sharp shooter Jordan Poole found his rhythm, the Gators were in trouble.
Down 43-28, Hudson finally ended the run with a three-pointer. That kick started a 9-0 Florida run while it held Michigan scoreless for close to four minutes. But still trailing 43-37, the Gators needed to keep the pedal to the metal.
Instead, a Hudson foul on a Michigan three-point attempt killed the momentum. The Wolverines continued a good day at the free throw line as Poole converted all three.
After several minutes without much action from either team, Allen finally came out of the shadows with a jumper. His first make of the game made it 48-41 with 8:58 remaining.
Michigan went back up by 10 with a three-point play, but Allen hit a triple to bring it back to single digits.
It was better late than never, and if Allen could keep shooting that way, the Gators just might have a chance.
Hayes followed the three with a steal, but Florida couldn’t take advantage as Nembhard gave it right back.
Allen picked up a foul, and after a pair of Michigan free throws, Nembhard lost it again. The Wolverines didn’t come away with points that time down the court, but the Gators were completely discombobulated.
A 51-44 game turned into 60-44 with no answers from Florida. Michigan put the game to bed the same way it started it, with a couple of monster dunks. A great run late in the season ended in a deflating way as the Gators fell 64-49.
“I do think we played really hard in the second half,” said head coach Mike White. “Left it out there on the floor. No regrets in that regard … A big factor in playing from behind is that you’re playing the top-ranked defensive efficiency team in the country. We saw firsthand how tough, physical, connected that defense is. They are terrific. I’m not going to sit here and say we played poorly. We did some good things, just didn’t do enough.”
Unfortunately for Florida, playing hard couldn’t mask shooting 29 percent in the final 20 minutes.
Getting outscored 34-16 in the paint, the Gators needed to account for the deficit with three-point shooting. After shooting 50 percent (6-for-12) from there in the first half, they fell to 21 percent (3-for-14) in the second half.
Michigan also won the rebounding battle 42-29 with an 11-5 advantage on the offensive boards.
Hudson led the team with 11 points. Locke had 8 points, but only scored in the first half. Allen had 8 points, but only scored in the second half.
Hayes had 8 points and 7 rebounds. He continued to play hard, but just didn’t make the same difference he made in the games leading up to this.
Nembhard finished with 7 points and 8 assists, but turned it over 4 times and in a couple of key moments.
While it didn’t turn out the way the Gators wanted, they take pride in how far they came throughout the course of the season.
“We never gave up,” Hudson said. “We fought. At one point in the season there was a lot of uncertainty, and we never laid down. We just found a way to win and we all came together. We all banded together. I will never forget the way we came together and how we were able to fight and how we maxed out when we decided to. I will never forget that. That was important to me.”