For the first five minutes of Saturday’s game, the Florida men’s basketball team looked poised to run away from No. 1-ranked Baylor, winners of 15 consecutive contests prior to arriving in Gainesville.
Much to the initial delight of the Florida faithful at the O’Connell Center, UF jumped out to a 14-5 advantage – but the Bears are much too talented, and experienced, to throw in the towel prematurely.
What ensued was a 35-13 run by the Bears over the remaining 15 minutes of the first half, giving them a double-digit lead that it never relinquished as Florida fell, 72-61, in the SEC/Big Challenge.
“This team has to learn – and this is what we’ve been preaching lately – that every possession potentially is the winning possession of the game. Every possession,” said UF coach Mike White. “And that takes maturity, and we’re an immature team right now. From a toughness standpoint, we’re nowhere near what it takes to be a championship-level team.”
Florida got 20 points on 9-for-17 shooting from Keyontae Johnson, while point guard Andrew Nembhard provided 16 points and eight assists – but the Gators couldn’t keep up with the production of Baylor’s backcourt, which White dubbed “maybe the best backcourt in the country” prior to Saturday’s contest.
MaCio Teague and Devonte Bandoo led the Bears with 16 points apiece, while Jared Butler had 10 points in just 24 minutes for Baylor’s multi-faceted attack. Meanwhile, redshirt senior forward Freddie Gillespie helped lead a Baylor frontcourt that surprisingly found itself outscored in the paint, 32-20, despite holding a 37-26 advantage over the Gators on the glass.
Instead, Baylor did something it had only done modestly this season – converted from deep.
The Bears shot 43.6 from the field, including a 9-for-19 performance from 3-point range against a Florida team in the midst of a defensive slump of sorts — a slight but noticeable uptick from Baylor’s season average of 34.6 percent from long-range.
At times, with a sizable deficit, the Gators resorted to a slew of defensive alignments in the hope of slowing down Baylor’s offense.
Yet each time, the Bears seemed to have a solution.
“We had a lot of breakdowns on defense, and they made us pay for it,” Johnson said. “They hit contested threes at the beginning and end of the game.”
The Baylor lead would reach 19 with 13:56 left to play before the Gators managed to make another last-ditch push to trim into the deficit.
After going on a 12-4 run immediately upon falling into said 19-point hole, Florida had an opportunity to trim the lead to just 10 —but it missed the front end of three consecutive one-and-ones, keeping the Bears comfortably in front. Kerry Blackshear Jr. was the culprit twice on back-to-back possessions and then Noah Locke did the same seconds later.
“This was a bad defensive game,” Johnson said. “We came out strong for the first four minutes, then we just started slugging off on defense again.”
Aside from missing an opportunity to bounce back from Tuesday’s 84-82 loss at LSU, the Gators missed out on a chance to win the first regular season game against a No. 1-ranked team in program history.
However, considering the Gators aren’t assured of their postseason hopes with a daunting February schedule on the horizon, there’s likely more pressing concerns on the mind of White and Florida.
“Not a lot of signs lately that we’re making big steps with maturity, outside of offensive flow and confidence, and offensive execution at times. Obviously, Baylor made it look ugly for us at times tonight,” White said. “Defensively though, we’re just casual, we’re soft. At times, we lack the discipline the best defenses in the country, like Baylor, have. That’s what we’re striving for.”
The Gators will stay in the O’Connell Center for the return of SEC play Tuesday at 7 p.m. against Mississippi State.
Notes: Florida forward Dontay Bassett missed his second consecutive game with a calf injury. Bassett averages 1.3 points and 2.1 rebounds. … The Bears matched their best 18-game start in school history. They also started 17-1 in 2011-12 and 2016-17. … The Bears also gave the Big 12 an even split (5-5) in the daylong event. … The Gators fell to 2-17 against the No. 1 team, including 10 consecutive losses.
Baylor 72, Florida 61
Mitchell 2-13 7-8 12, Teague 5-12 4-4 16, Gillespie 4-8 1-1 9, Vital 2-3 0-0 4, Bandoo 5-7 3-3 16, Butler 4-8 0-0 10, Mayer 2-3 0-0 5, Thamba 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-55 15-16 72.
Nembhard 6-14 4-5 16, Payne 1-1 0-0 2, Blackshear 3-5 3-6 9, Johnson 9-17 0-0 20, Lewis 0-2 0-0 0, Locke 1-6 0-1 3, Mann 2-4 2-2 6, Glover 1-4 2-2 5. Totals 23-53 11-16 61.
Halftime_Baylor 40-29. 3-Point Goals_Baylor 9-20 (Bandoo 3-5, Butler 2-3, Teague 2-6, Mayer 1-1, Mitchell 1-5), Florida 4-18 (Johnson 2-5, Glover 1-1, Locke 1-5, Blackshear 0-1, Lewis 0-1, Mann 0-1, Nembhard 0-4). Rebounds_Baylor 31 (Vital 10), Florida 21 (Johnson 5). Assists_Baylor 13 (Mitchell 6), Florida 11 (Nembhard 8). Total Fouls_Baylor 19, Florida 17.