UF again showed mettle, but that wasn't quite enough as Gators fall to Mississippi State | Whitley
Up, up and … not quite.
Florida’s Myreon Jones lofted a 3-point shot at end of regulation that would have won the game. It was a tad short.
A few minutes later, Jones lofted a 3-point shot that would have won the game in overtime. It was a tad-and-a-half short.
And just like that, Florida’s basketball season might have come to an agonizingly sweet conclusion on Thursday in Nashville.
It was agonizing to Gator fans for the near-miss ending(s). It was sweet because things looked more than a tad hopeless for much of the afternoon.
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Yet there the Gators were, with two chances to give the SEC Tournament a major jolt. In a way, the crowd at the Bridgestone Arena should have been surprised Mississippi State won only by 69-68 in overtime.
But if anyone had watched Florida the past two weeks, they should have expected the death-defying routine. We were all shoveling dirt on the season after Colin Castleton broke his hand, but the Gators refused to get buried.
“Obviously, a tough loss for us,” Todd Golden said. “But with that being said, I was really proud of the way our guys continued to battle.”
He’s been saying that last part a lot lately, and rightfully so. Golden should be proud of how his team has responded post-Castleton. And he should be proud of his coaching job.
It’s not easy remaking a team on the fly in the final couple of weeks of a season. But X’s-and-O’s aside, it’s equally challenging to keep players motivated when all seems lost.
And boy, did it seem lost for most of the first half Thursday. The Bulldogs played as if an NCAA Tournament bid were at stake, which it was.
The bracket gurus all pretty much decreed that Mississippi State would clinch a spot with a win over UF. As they bullied their way to a 14-point lead, ESPN interviewed Castleton about how his loss has affected things.
“Everybody’s got to step up,” he said. “You can’t pout about it. You’ve got to move on.”
Gators have been stepping up since Castleton went down
That’s been the official UF mantra since Castleton’s injury three weeks ago. But on behalf of Gator fans, let me pout for just a moment.
No player meant more to his team than Castleton did to UF. The Gators were by no means Final Four material with him, but they were capable of beating any team.
That certainly included Mississippi State, which UF beat 61-59 in Starkville. In that game, Castleton held Bulldogs center Tolu Smith to 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
On Thursday, Smith bullied his way to 28 points and 12 rebounds. All Castleton could do was sit and clench the removable cast on his right hand.
OK, enough pouting. Back to the game, where the Gators trailed 36-22.
“That could have gone either way for us,” Golden said.
Pack it in, or fight.
UF chose the latter, and eventually took a three-point lead with 10:38 left. A lot of it was due to better defense, but the Bulldogs also unraveled under the NCAA-bubble pressure.
They steadied themselves enough to take a six-point lead with 1:54 left. But Jones hit two 3-pointers to set up the final shot in regulation.
It missed, but Jones was hardly the goat. UF wouldn’t have had any shot at winning without him. Ditto in overtime, which saw the Gators trail by seven points with 2:07 left.
Again, the game could have gone either way. Again, the Gators clawed back.
After a Smith basket, UF had 4.1 seconds to inbound the ball and get a shot. Jones was about five steps behind the 3-point line when he had to let it fly.
It was déjà vu all over again.
“At end of the day, we got two of them up,” Golden said. “You hope one of them falls.”
NIT bid for UF acceptable in light of past few weeks
We won’t know if it’s the end of the season until Sunday when NIT bids come out. Going to the NIT would have been considered a huge disappointment a month ago.
Now, the Gators would be happy for that phone to ring.
“You know, any chance you get, any opportunity to compete, you better step up and grab it,” Golden said. “As long as I'm the head coach at Florida, we’re going to compete.”
If nothing else, the Gators have proven that in the past few weeks.
David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley