Florida collapses vs. South Carolina, fueling questions about Gators basketball

By Adam Silverstein
January 6, 2019
Florida collapses vs. South Carolina, fueling questions about Gators basketball
Basketball

Image Credit: Courtney Culbreath, UAA Communications

As Florida Gators basketball began its Southeastern Conference schedule, hope existed that the team had turned things around after a rough start to the season that included one of the toughest nonconference slates any team in the nation had faced. After 40 minutes of basketball at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Saturday, much of that hope evaporated.

Florida led the South Carolina Gamecocks for 35:25 on Saturday and held a 14-point lead in the second half, but the Gators ended the game as they have so many others already this season — rudderless offensively.

UF went 1-for-12 from the floor late and missed eight straight field goals over the final 7:17 of the game; it also went 1-for-4 from the line on its last two trips to the charity stripe, though senior center Kevarrius Hayes uncharacteristically made that sole free throw to tie the game at 69 with three seconds remaining.

It was up to the Gators to count on their one stalwart this season, defense, to carry them to overtime in a game they never should have trailed late in the first place. Instead, Florida left the trigger man unguarded — despite head coach Mike White saying his defensive call to put a man on the inbounder was “very clear” — and South Carolina heaved a Hail Mary of a pass that resulted in an uncontested walk-off dunk and 71-69 loss for the home team.

The Gamecocks, mind you, are a sub .500 team, and the Gators were playing a home game after a week-long layoff following a pair of ego-boosting victories, 77-56 over FGCU and 77-43 over Butler. Still, Florida not only saw its lead dissipate, it failed to even force overtime despite giving itself a chance.

“I’m not stunned; I’m disappointed,” White said after the game. “Our defensive effort wasn’t the same as it’s been. I thought we felt too good about ourselves all week, and I said that to our guys every day. … We didn’t have a lot of maturity this week coming off the performance against Butler. We didn’t get better. South Carolina out-prepared us, out-fought us, out-disciplined us. They came in here and deserved to beat us.”

That’s one way to put it. Another is that the Gators simply cannot find the bottom of the basket. Florida shot 37.7 percent for the game and 33.3 percent in the second half, making just 9-of-27 field goals, as South Carolina outplayed it by every offensive metric. The Gators’ only solace was their defense (26 points off 22 forced turnovers), but even that failed in the waning minutes.

It’s the sixth time this season that UF has shot under 40 percent from the field and seventh that it has shot under 30 percent from downtown.

Freshman guard Noah Locke was again Florida’s leading scorer, scoring 17 points while taking 15 of his 16 shots from beyond the arc (making five); it’s the fourth straight game he’s led the Gators. Meanwhile, redshirt senior G Jalen Hudson is back to cratering with eight points on 2-of-8 shooting, and freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard continues efforting (seven assists) but has yet to find a consistent shot (10 points, 0-for-5 from three).

More important than individual issues is the fact that Florida as a whole does not appear to be getting better now 13 games into the season. And while the Gators did have a tough nonconference campaign, the SEC slate is even more difficult. No. 3 Tennessee (12-1), No. 12 Auburn (11-2), No. 13 Kentucky (10-3) and No. 17 Mississippi State (12-1) are all AP Top 25 teams, and Florida plays them a combined six times.

That’s not to mention that Ole Miss (11-2), Alabama (10-3), Arkansas (10-3), LSU (10-3), Missouri (9-3) and Vanderbilt (9-4) all have better overall records than UF at this time; of course, the Gators have played more difficult teams to this point, but still.

If this continues for Florida, a team once annually considered among the top two of the SEC may be headed toward the bottom of the league’s standings at a time when the conference has built up coaching and playing talent.

Reinforcements are coming for the Gators … in the offseason. By then, depending how this season plays out, who knows what Florida basketball will look like as the nation’s No. 9 class — including two five-star prospects and another top-40 player — join the fold.

The Gators have every opportunity to finish the 2018-19 season strong. It’s just that, to this point, Florida has not given any indication such a turnaround is likely. Perhaps another key home game with Tennessee next Saturday will prove otherwise.

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