UMass proves too much for Gators

Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 7:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 at 7:53 p.m.

NEW YORK Florida was 20 minutes away from playing in its first National Invitational Tournament title game in school history.

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Florida's Nick Calathes looks to shoot against UMass in the first half of the NIT semifinal in New York City on Tuesday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun

But any last hopes of the Gators salvaging a banner this season ended in a second-half sea of mistakes and missed free throws Tuesday.

Hard-charging Massachusetts rallied from nine points down at halftime to beat Florida 78-66 in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden.

Sophomore center Marreese Speights led Florida with 16 points and 18 rebounds in what could be his final game as a Gator. Speights said he plans to talk with his family this weekend before making any immediate decisions about his future.

"I'd like to be back," Speights said. "I'm going to have to sit down and talk with my family and my coaches and make the best decision."

Speights' 18 rebounds were a career-high and he broke Neal Walk's NIT record for rebounds in a game (17 in 1969).

Some NBA Draft Web sites have the 6-foot-10 Speights projected as a first-round pick. Florida coach Billy Donovan said, if asked, he would send in paperwork to the NBA and talk to scouts to determine his potential draft status.

"I think that's part of the problem, you know, with college basketball is someone made a comment that he's projected, and sometimes these kids make decisions on projections," Donovan said. "I just want to sit down and talk to him and see where he's at. I think for any player, I'd want him to be here for the right reasons."

While Speights had his way inside for much of the game, Florida couldn't hit enough big shots from the perimeter and had problems stopping UMass off the dribble in the second half. The Gators missed all six 3-point attempts in the second half and finished 2-for-12 (16.7 percent) from beyond the arc.

Missed free throws also hurt. After Walter Hodge made a driving layup to put Florida ahead 47-41, UMass went on a 13-2 run to take control of the game. During the stretch, Florida missed four straight free throws.

The Gators shot eight for 21 (38.1 percent) from the stripe.

"I wish I could say it was the background, but it was just us not focusing in," said Florida freshman Chandler Parsons, who missed three critical second-half free throws.

"Any time you shoot in the 30-percentile from the free throw line, it's always going to cause you a problem," Donovan said.

UMass forward Etienne Brower put the Minutemen ahead to stay, 52-49, with a 3-pointer with 9:49 left. From there, UMass (25-10) turned to senior Gary Forbes down the stretch. Forbes made two big baskets, a 3-pointer and turnaround jumper, on consecutive trips down the floor to keep the Minutemen ahead 64-56.

Forbes led four UMass players in double-figures with 19 points. Dante Milligan added 17 points, Ricky Harris scored 16 points and Chris Lowe had 16 points and five assists.

Nick Calathes added 12 points and three assists for Florida, but struggled from the floor, going 5-for-19. Dan Werner had 11 points and seven assists.

UMass shot 53.3 percent from the floor in the second half.

"It came down to us guarding the ball," Werner said. "They were really getting us off the dribble, especially in the second half."

There were some sloppy first-half moments. Jonathan Mitchell had an in-bound pass easily stolen underneath the basket, and Speights threw the ball off Jai Lucas's back for another careless turnover.

The Minutemen couldn't keep Speights off the glass as he grabbed 11 first-half rebounds.

After three ties and four lead changes, Florida built a cushion late in the first half. Hodge made a driving layup to break a 19-19 tie, then Werner followed with a 3-pointer to give Florida a 24-19 lead.

Alex Tyus followed with a wide-open dunk to put Florida up 26-21. Then Speights, showing some resolve, wrestled for an offensive rebound and putback over a pair of UMass defenders and scored on a putback to extend the Florida lead to 28-21.

Calathes picked up his second foul at the 9:41 mark, but Donovan checked the 6-foot-6 guard back in the game with 3:19 left after UMass cut the lead to 28-23 on a pair of Ricky Harris free throws.

The move worked. Florida closed the half with an 8-4 run. Adam Allen provided a lift with a 3-pointer off the bench to give Florida its biggest lead, 35-25, with 1:00 left. Harris followed with a layup for UMass to cut the Florida lead to 35-27, then Allen made one of two free throws to put Florida ahead 36-27 at halftime.

Florida closed the season 24-12, and Donovan took solace in the effort Florida played with during its NIT run to New York.

"One of the greatest positives about this experience for our guys is the fact that it went all the way to April," Donovan said. "These kids I think played pretty hard and gave me what they had."

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