Defense does in Gators this time
Gators uncharacteristically lax on D
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — They got the look they wanted. It came up short. They got the right guy to the foul line and he missed the second free throw. They got the rebound. They got the tip out for one last chance. In the end, they came up empty. But that's not why Florida lost the SEC Championship Game to Ole Miss on Sunday. The Gators lost because the one thing that was the core of this team all season decided to take a holiday. Florida played terrible defense for a long stretch in the second half and especially in the paint. That's why Florida saw a 12-point lead turn into six-point deficit.
“We're holding people to 52, 54 points a game and we give up 40 in the second half,” Billy Donovan said. To say the least, Donovan wasn't happy after the latest loss, but it had nothing to do with the Gators losing another close one. It was how they lost the lead that got under the Florida coach's skin. He was upset with the defensive effort. He was upset with an offense that went stagnant in the second half. He was upset with point guard Scottie Wilbekin getting all dribble-happy. He was upset with officials, who missed an obvious goaltending call and called two fouls on Wilbekin when Wilbekin claimed he didn't touch Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson. (To be honest, I thought the calls evened out. It was just a poorly officiated second half). For all of Henderson's screaming and Gator-chomping and wild shots, it wasn't his 21 points that killed Florida. It was the 23 scored by Murphy Holloway and the 36 points Florida allowed in the paint. That was very un-Florida-like. “Holloway was the guy we wanted to shut down.” said senior Kenny Boynton. “We didn't contain him much.” Florida showed the same resilience it did in its semifinal win over Alabama by fighting its way back to have a shot. “It just didn't go in,” Donovan said. And the focus will be on another Florida late-game failure. It certainly is going to be a concern for anyone filling out their NCAA Tournament bracket. Florida is good enough to make the Final Four, but its inability to win games that come down to the last seconds will be a red flag. That's another thing that had Donovan riled up Sunday. “People want to make a big deal about it,” he said. “The ball didn't go into the basket. Did Erik Murphy look scared to shoot the ball? “People try to create this drama like our guys have lost their confidence. They haven't lost confidence.” Murphy got the look Florida wanted. But his six-foot baby hook shot came up short. It was part of a second straight off night for the senior, who made the All-Tournament team because he lit up LSU on Friday night. They got Holloway to the free-throw line with 8.6 seconds to play. Holloway had struggled all tournament with his free-throw shooting. “I was hoping to make just one,” he said. And he did. Florida got the rebound and Mississippi fouled Wilbekin. The plan was to make them both and try to get a five-second call on the inbounds. But he left his first one short and missed the second on purpose. The Gators were able to tip the ball back to Boynton, who stepped back and launched an off-balance 3. And for a second, you had to think they were due to make a big shot in a close game. But the shot clanged off the rim and Mississippi celebrated. “I kind of rushed it,” Boynton said. And so they retired to their hotel rooms with no trophy and no nets. Now, they go into the real madness of March as the third seed in Austin. “It's one-and-done now,” said senior Mike Rosario. This is still a team that has 26 wins and an SEC regular-season title. It's still a team that is the healthiest it has been all season. It's still a team that can make a deep run. None of that changed Sunday in Nashville. The lingering doubt about this team will be about how it has lost so many double-digit leads instead of all the times it has expanded them. But it should be on the missed free throws, the lack of offensive movement in the second half and a defense that allowed Mississippi to score at will inside. That's how Florida lost its chance to win its fourth SEC Tournament. Those are the things they need to clean up. If they do, there won't be the opportunities for end-game failures.