Florida Gators basketball (15-15, 8-9 SEC) won back-to-back games for the first time in over a month and returned to .500 with a 66-62 victory over the Texas A&M Aggies (20-9, 11-6 SEC) on Tuesday evening at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Three days after picking up his 500th career victory, head coach Billy Donovan won his 200th Southeastern Conference game, making him just the third coach ever to reach that milestone in league play.
OnlyGators.com breaks down Tuesday’s action with nine quick-hitters:
It was over when: Five-straight points by redshirt junior guard Eli Carter (two free throws and a three-pointer) put Florida ahead 58-42 with just over three minutes to play and looked to put the game firmly in the Gators’ grasp. Instead, the Aggies began fouling and chipped away at that lead with a 20-7 run, cutting their deficit to three with 6.3 seconds left. UF went 8-for-18 from the charity stripe over the final two minutes.
“I think that, in the second half in particular, has been a real microcosm of our team mentally. We’re not a mentally-strong team,” Donovan said of the free throw shooting issues. “At the end of the game, you can’t just take two point guards off the floor from a ball-handling standpoint. So at some point, those guys got to make free throws. You look at those guys’ free throw percentages, calling it like it is, those guys felt a lot of pressure. They felt a lot of pressure. That’s what’s happened to our team a lot this year is we have these mental lapses.”
Significant stretch: Leading by two, the Gators put their foot on the gas and exploded on a 14-0 run, boosting Florida ahead of Texas A&M 47-31 with eight minutes to play. Redshirt junior forward Alex Murphy scored nine points (including seven-straight and six as part of the run), adding a block and a steal during the extended scoring stretch. “I really felt the last couple days here we’ve had some really good practices, in particular on the defensive end of the floor,” Donovan said. “For us I thought, defensively, all the way around … we did a much better job. I thought we made some strides defensively.”
Prominent player: Murphy was not one of the Gators’ top scorers, but he was nevertheless the catalyst the pushed Florida to victory on Tuesday. He finished with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, hitting 1-of-2 attempts from beyond the arc. “Alex has always been really, really good on the break. He’s a big, strong, physical body going to the basket. He had some really good drives; he did knock down a three. He had a couple lapses defensively where he needs to do a little bit better, but he gave us a really, really good boost. I think, for the most part, Alex always plays with pretty good energy,” Donovan said.
First half focus: Texas A&M drained two early threes and opened the contest ahead 10-0 as Florida committed three turnovers on its first five possessions. Redshirt junior F Dorian Finney-Smith being inserted to the game gave the Gators the juice they needed as the team immediately went on a 12-0 run to take a 14-12 lead as the Aggies missed five-straight shots and committed five turnovers in 6:18. UF held a three-point lead at the break with Finney-Smith posting 10 points and five boards in the opening 20 minutes.
Perfect plays: Late in the first half with Florida trailing by three, redshirt senior walk-on Jacob Kurtz saved a potential turnover, immediately brought it to the hoop and finished at the rim despite being poked in the eye and going down after the play. Sophomore point guard Kasey Hill got in on the fun with a sweet crossover even later in the half. Even Murphy made his case for the game’s highlight package with a strong dunk and acrobatic reverse layup (see bottom of post).
Standout stat: All coming off the pine, Murphy, Finney-Smith and Robinson helped the Gators to a dominant bench scoring advantage, 33-11. Finney-Smith finished with team-highs of seven boards and 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting (2-for-3 from three) but fouled out of the contest with 6:21 to play, while Robinson grabbed four rebounds and also went 4-for-7 with 10 points on the evening.
What it means / Next up: Florida won back-to-back games for the first time in the month and enters its final regular-season game against Kentucky back at .500 with some momentum on its side. The Gators will have to defeat the Wildcats, the nation’s No. 1 team, in order to avoid a sub-.500 regular season for the first time since 1997-98.
Everything else: Through the first 31:31 of the game, Finney-Smith (four) was the only Florida player to net more than one field goal … UF continued its abhorrent foul shooting, going 19-for-36 (.528) from the charity stripe) … the Gators were badly out-rebounded by the Aggies (40-28) but did share the ball well, dishing 15 assists on 19 baskets … freshman PG Chris Chiozza went 4-for-12 from the free throw line, 2-for-8 over the final 1:43 of the contest