The Gators had a golden opportunity to pick up a resume-building win over a top-15 opponent at home on Wednesday night.
LSU’s starting point guard, Xavier Pinson, didn’t play due to a sprained right MCL that he suffered in their game on Saturday. Forward Tari Eason, one of their top players off of the bench, fouled out with 14 minutes left to play. Starting center Efton Reid fouled out with 7:16 to go.
After trailing by as many as 14 points in both halves, Florida rallied to make it a 54-53 game with a little more than six minutes remaining. The Gators had all of the momentum, the crowd was in a frenzy, and the Tigers had to be exhausted due to the lack of depth. Four Tigers played more than 32 minutes.
The Gators had the Tigers on the ropes.
But they didn’t finish.
Instead, No. 12 LSU outscored them 12-5 the rest of the way to hand the Gators a 64-58 loss. UF (9-6, 0-3 SEC) has opened conference play with three consecutive losses for the first time since the 1980-81 season.
In all three games, the Gators were right there with a chance to win in the second half but crumbled at the worst possible times.
In Coach Mike White’s opinion, the biggest issue with his team right now isn’t the talent level or the amount of effort that they’re playing with. Their biggest enemy lines within their own heads. Good teams shake off a few missed shots or defensive breakdowns and move on to the next play. The Gators allow one or two bad plays to turn into a bad 5-10-minute segment that ends up costing them the game.
“Mentally, we’ve got to get tougher,” White said. “It’s a little bit of a surprise with a team this old. We can be soft mentally at times, and it shows with some of the looks that we had and with the way we shot at the foul line when we hit some adversity.
“We’ve got to get tougher, period. We looked rattled at the tip on our home court, unsure with the basketball, made some poor decisions, dug ourselves a hole, and then came out in the second half and made some great decisions with the basketball. We got it to where we wanted it. We fought our tails off defensively and connected.”
In the LSU game, that lack of mental toughness showed up in their shooting percentages. For the game, the Gators went 7-for-31 from three-point land (22.6 percent) and 11-for-22 (50 percent) from the free throw line. Those percentages were even worse in the second half when the game was on the line at 22.2 percent and 36.4 percent, respectively.
After they cut the deficit to one with six minutes to go, they went just 2-for-9 from the field the rest of the way, including 0-for-7 from long distance. They also missed four of their last five free throws.
“We know how capable we are and how much potential we have,” forward Anthony Duruji said. “We’ve just got to continue to get better. It shows out there. It was a close game, but it’s hard to win. We’ve got to learn how to win. We’ve got to continue to piece everything together. We’re getting closer, but we’ve just got to keep on climbing and trusting the process, be bought into what Coach is telling us, and we’ll be fine.”
If they made even two or three more free throws and one more three, they probably would have won the game.
And it’s not like the guys who took those shots have been bad shooters throughout their careers.
Myreon Jones entered the night as a career 77 percent free throw shooter. He missed two out of three when he had a chance to tie the game after getting fouled while shooting a three.
Brandon McKissic entered the game as a 61 percent free throw shooter. That’s not a very good percentage for a guard, but you still wouldn’t expect him to go 0-for-2 when he had a chance to tie the game with 2:29 to go.
The same applies when it comes to three-pointers. Jones shot 38 percent from long range in his three seasons at Penn State. He went 2-for-9 against LSU and is now at a tick below 30 percent for the season.
McKissic went 1-for-7 from beyond the arc and is now at 28 percent for the season. He buried threes at a 39 percent clip in four seasons at UMKC.
“We had our chances, but I think we have to be confident with knocking down free throws and knocking down shots,” Duruji said. “It kind of really hurt us down the stretch.
“I think it’s all mental. Like I said, we have to be confident. We’re good basketball players. We’ve just got to get better. We have to be confident in ourselves and then knock down free throws and open shots. It’s definitely mental, but it’s a long season.”
White likes the players that he has shooting the ball, and he thinks they did a great job of executing their offense from a passing standpoint against the Tigers (15-1, 3-1). He went as far as to say that they got better three-point looks against LSU than they had all season, and they did that against the nation’s best defense.
The ball simply isn’t going in the basket for them right now. They’re in a team-wide mental slump, and now they’ve got to figure out how to snap out of it.
White said that they constantly put the players in situations where they have to overcome adversity in practice, and they take plenty of shots. The players even put in extra time on their own to work on their strokes. He plans to keep putting them in adverse situations and perhaps tweak their free throw shooting regimen.
The poor shooting also led to some breakdowns on the defensive end. LSU made four of its final five shots and shot 50 percent for the game. The Gators basically got caught in a cycle of poor shooting leading to poor defense, which in turn led to more missed shots.
“You could see it in body language,” White said. “Guys drop heads, and it’s addressed every single day. We’ll continue to address it to try to help these guys be their best versions, but walking after the ball, head down, not a lot of communication, obviously.”
This is a long season. There’s still plenty of time for the Gators to turn things around and go on a long winning streak.
However, there should definitely be a heightened sense of urgency. Florida entered Wednesday ranked 50th in the NCAA Evaluation Tool metric that is used as a factor in the selection of the NCAA Tournament field. That probably would have them on the outside looking in, and they’ll likely drop even further following the LSU loss.
They’re 0-3 in the SEC and still have games coming up against Tennessee, Kentucky (twice) and Auburn.
However, before they can worry about any of that, they first must conquer the enemy that lies within their own minds.
“We’ve got to get this thing going,” White said. “We’ve proved we’re capable. You talk about how certain teams handle success; this team hasn’t handled adversity very well. Actually, we handled success early on very well. We’ve got to get some type of mojo back.”