Florida vs. Colorado score: Walter Clayton’s heroics don’t save earliest NCAA Tournament exit since 2010

By OnlyGators.com Staff
March 22, 2024
Florida vs. Colorado score: Walter Clayton’s heroics don’t save earliest NCAA Tournament exit since 2010

Image Credit: NCAA

Florida Gators basketball’s best season since 2016-17 ended in heartbreaking fashion with the program getting eliminated before the second round of an NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009-10, snapping a streak that spanned eight such events. Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. heroically scored a career-high 33 points, including Florida’s final 16 over 3:46 to end the contest, only to watch as a game-winner came from the other side with 1.7 seconds remaining.

The No. 7-seed Gators struggled massively on defense Friday in the first round of the 2024 NCAA Tournament, getting ousted 102-100 by the No. 10-seed Colorado Buffaloes at the Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. Beyond the defensive struggles, Florida was the victim of a horrendous officiating effort that saw Colorado benefit from more than a handful of calls in the second half that boosted its lead and made a comeback so difficult for UF.

Let’s take a look at what went down Friday afternoon.

It was over when … CU guard KJ Simpson pushed off redshirt senior point guard Zyon Pullin and watched a baseline jumper bounce through the rim with 1.7 seconds remaining. Clayton’s 16-point explosion preceded that play, an off-balance 3-pointer tying the contest with 9.5 seconds left. It concluded a 19-6 run for the Gators in which Clayton drained two triples and capitalized on an excellent steal from sophomore G Riley Kugel.

“I saw them throw it in to Simpson, and Z.P. did an incredible job staying down and staying between him and the basket, and Simpson somehow got about 5 feet of separation off Z.P. and made a really tough skilled shot from the baseline,” head coach Todd Golden said of the play. “Z.P. did his job: stayed in legal guarding position, stayed between the ball and the basket. Again, somehow, Simpson just created about 7 feet of separation to get that shot off.”

Florida got off to an immensely slow start in the second half missing its first five 3-pointers and trailing by eight on the back of a 9-2 run by Colorado. The Buffs benefitted from an odd stretch in which they were given two questionable foul calls (one on an all-ball block) and a free basket on what should have been a non-shooting foul. Golden was assessed a technical while rightly expressing his frustration at the officials, but it contributed to a 5-point possession that put CU up 10.

“I have three technicals in my coaching career; he has given me two of them,” Golden said of the official, Eric Curry.

That stretch was part of Colorado making 11 straight shots over 8:16 as it went up a game-high 13 points. It either drained a basket or got fouled on seemingly every possession as it built its lead. Florida responded by taking advantage of three turnovers with a late 7-0 run, cutting its deficit to six with 2:19 to play. Freshman center Alex Condon, starting for injured sophomore Micah Handlogten, fouled out while cleanly blocking an alley-oop attempt, a paradigm of the one-sided officiating in the game (33 CU free throws).

First half focus: The Gators hit their first four 3-pointers while jumping ahead 24-14 early, but the followed by missing 8 of 9 shots over an extended period, allowing the Buffs to create a 10-2 run and draw within a basket. Colorado eventually erased its deficit as Florida did not even attempt a free throw until there was 4:16 left in the half. The teams ended the period tied at 45 with UF taking advantage of turnovers and second chances, while CU dominated in the paint offensively.

Exceptional efforts: Clayton was simply exceptional, posting his 33 points while shooting 10 of 17 from the floor, 4 of 10 from downtown and 9 of 10 from the line. He got in foul trouble early but only had one turnover in the game. Kugel saw 21 minutes after not playing much of late. He made the most of it with one of his best performances of the season, scoring 11 points on 4 of 8 shooting with four rebounds and three steals. Junior G Will Richard was efficient scoring 15 points while draining 3 of 6 from beyond the arc with three assists and two boards, but he committed three costly turnovers.

Odds & ends: Florida failed to advance to the second round of an NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010, snapping an eight-event streak in which it won its first-round game … the 102 points allowed by the Gators marked the second-most in regulation this season (103) … Florida fell to 45-20 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and 16-6 in the first round … it was the Gators’ first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2021 … Golden is now 0-1 in the postseason at UF … Florida was outplayed in nearly every statistical phase of the game, getting outshot and outrebounded … the Gators fell to 9-20 under Golden across two seasons when tied or trailing at halftime, 2-23 when trailing with 5 minutes left

What it means: It was a disappointing end to the season for Florida, which improved as the campaign progressed and went on an electric run through the 2024 SEC Tournament last week only to come up short. The Gators played well offensively Friday but simply could not stop the Buffaloes due to a combination of poor defense and officiating that did not allow the higher seed to play aggressively in the paint.

It was a bad look but the continuation of a trend for Golden, who has seen UF struggle on the defensive end, especially over the two games of the season. Certainly the loss of Handlogten (broken leg) seconds into the penultimate game of the campaign played a role, but the Gators nevertheless struggled mightily on defense.

Not helping matters was Pullin going cold over the last two games, hitting just 7 of 22 shots (.318) with five fouls and three turnovers; 13 of his 28 points across those games came at the charity stripe. Redshirt senior forward Tyrese Samuel also struggled defensively despite a solid statistical outing.

Consternation over Golden’s technical is unfounded. It lit a fire under Florida and was among the catalysts for the Gators’ late comeback; a point had to be made in the moment given how frequently his team was on the wrong side of the whistle, though that trend certainly did not change over the duration of the contest.

What’s next? Florida would have faced a relatively soft road to the Elite Eight had it gotten out of the first round, but it now must watch from home as others hash it out in the NCAA Tournament. Pullin and Samuel will depart having exhausted their eligibility, and attention will turn to Kugel, who opened the season as a starter only to ultimately be benched for multiple games down the stretch. While he flashed talent frequently when put on the court, he also made far too many errors for Golden to stomach. It is assumed that Kugel will enter the transfer portal, but there’s always the possibility he is willing to take tough coaching and remain with the program, especially given Golden took a chance on Kugel out of high school.

Golden will also focus on both recruiting and re-recruiting from the portal and the NBA Draft process. Retaining Clayton and Richard will be critical. It would be surprising if anyone else who got significant playing time left the program. He must acquire a starting point guard and another big man, at a minimum, this offseason.

Golden will enter Year 3 having received an approximate $1.5 million annual raise with an average salary of $4.1 million for the duration of his contract. Some saw his extension as coming too early, which is another fair criticism of athletic director Scott Stricklin, though Golden was one of numerous coaches (many of whom also lost in the first round) that received raises before the start of March Madness. It will be up to Golden to prove he is worth top-20 or top-25 money next season.

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