Second-half struggles doom Florida Gators as they lose to Xavier in second round of NIT

James Weber
Gator Sports
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CINCINNATI — Sunday’s National Invitation Tournament second-round game at the Cintas Center featured two teams under interim head coaches and whose players had just found out who their new head coach was going to be next season.

Both teams were fighting to keep the season alive and shake off the disappointment of playing in the NIT after tough losses in their conference tournaments. They wanted to put themselves one win way from playing in Madison Square Garden next week for the final four of the tournament.

That was the backdrop as the Florida men’s basketball team played Xavier Sunday afternoon for the right to advance to the quarterfinals. No. 2 seed Xavier started the second half with a 14-3 run to break a 33-33 halftime tie and move on with a 72-56 win over No. 3 seed Florida.

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Florida finishes with a 20-14 record as Xavier (20-13) moves on to Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

Florida Gators guard Tyree Appleby (22) drives against Xavier Musketeers guard Dwon Odom (11) in the first half of Sunday's NIT second-round game at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati.

New coaches coming

Florida hired Todd Golden Friday, just one day after he coached San Francisco in its first NCAA Tournament game in more than 20 years. Golden, 36, was interviewed during the ESPN broadcast.

Xavier hired Sean Miller to come back to the program Saturday after the university parted ways with Travis Steele following XU’s first-round NIT win over Cleveland State. Miller, currently a college basketball analyst, had coached at Xavier before several years at Arizona.

Both teams used assistants as interim head coaches, Al Pinkins for the Gators and Jonas Hayes for Xavier. Both of them downplayed any distractions from the coaching situation.

Whatever the reason, the Gators’ performance in the second half didn’t come close to matching the quality of the opening stanza.

"Hard way to go out, but I'm proud of these guys," Pinkins said. "I didn't really talk basketball in our postgame talk. We kind of talked life with these guys. They've been through a lot for young men, and it'll make them stronger. I talked to our seniors that are leaving, those guys have been through so much this year. I just think those guys will all be successful. I kind of made it not about the game tonight — threes, misses, makes. I wanted to send those guys out with a little something positive. "We didn't play the way we were capable of ... but I'm proud of that group, won 20 games ... they have a lot to be proud of."

Low-scoring output

The Gators made only five of their first 27 shots from the floor and finished making 8-of-36 (22.2%) for the half. Florida shot 32.8% for the game (21-of-64) and Xavier 49.1 (26-53).

The Gators were outrebounded by eight in the second half and 11 for the game. They were in danger of producing their lowest-scoring output of the season before freshman Kowacie Reeves hit a 3-pointer with 1:34 to match the previous low of 54, last done on Jan. 24 against Ole Miss. A putback dunk by sophomore Niels Lane just before the final buzzer kept the Gators from matching that number.

Xavier, which allowed its fewest points in a game since giving up 50 to Ball State on Dec. 8, limited Colin Castleton, the Gators’ leading scorer, to 10 points, more than six below his average. He had only eight field-goal attempts, making four.

Xavier normally starts two post players in 7-foot Jack Nunge and 6-9 Zach Freemantle, but Freemantle came off the bench and both players were on the floor for less than 20 minutes apiece. Both bigs combined for 22 points and 15 rebounds as the Musketeers focused on making things difficult for Castleton in the paint.

Pinkins said the Gators have played against a lot of teams that played one post player, and that Xavier’s strategy didn’t hurt the Gators as much as their quickness on defense and ball movement on offense.

“Our game plan every game is to throw it to Colin every time we can throw it to him,” Pinkins said. “Even when we threw it in, they did such a good job of sending guys at him. They were great with their post defense and keeping us off balance in the post with trapping us with different guys. We couldn’t make the right play out of the traps. We haven’t had a problem with that all year, but tonight we struggled with it.”

Xavier guard Nate Johnson (10) celebrates a 3-pointer in the first half of Sunday's NIT second-round game against the Florida Gators at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati.

Xavier comes out hot in second half

Xavier made four of its first six shots of the second half, starting with a 3-pointer by Nate Johnson on the opening possession. The four field goals were made by four different players.

After trailing 47-36, Florida pulled within seven on a basket by graduate student Tyree Appleby, who then threw to Lane for an alley-oop dunk. Castleton made two free throws to cut the deficit to five at 47-42.

Xavier scored two baskets in a row on tough putbacks by Zach Freemantle and Dwon Odom, to go up by nine. Jerome Hunter scored on a drive to put Xavier up 12 at 55-43 with 7:30 to play and the Gators couldn't get closer. 

"I thought we turned the ball over too many times," Pinkins said. "You turn the ball over 15 times on the road, it's hard to win anywhere. I thought they took advantage of all of our turnovers. For us, our M.O. is to turn it over 10 or less, especially on the road, and give yourself a chance to win. I thought turnovers really hurt us."

Top scorers

Reeves led the Gators with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-8 from 3-point range. Castleton posted 10 points and six rebounds. Appleby, playing his final game in a Gator uniform, had 10 points and three assists.

Phlandrous Fleming Jr., another graduate student playing his final game, posted nine points and a team-high eight rebounds.

Florida has four seniors who are eligible to come back with an extra COVID year and play under the team’s new coach, but have not announced if they will.

"You're going to have adversity in life, and that's what we talked to these guys about from the start of the year," Pinkins said. "You're going to have some lows and some highs, and we've had a couple lows here lately. And this is a low. They need to learn from it, learn from the coaching situation that's going on, and it'll make them better guys."

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