As a three-point jumper from Florida guard KeVaughn Allen clanked off the side of the rim, Clemson forward Elijah Thomas started sprinting down the court.
None of UF’s players noticed Thomas transitioning away from the play, and as he approached the basket and received a pass teammate Marcquise Reed, he threw down an emphatic dunk to give the Tigers a one-point lead with 37 seconds left in the second half.
Despite Florida guard Jalen Hudson scoring a game-high 22 points, the play from Thomas ultimately clinched a 71-69 victory for Clemson at the Orange Bowl Classic on Saturday in Sunrise, Florida.
“We’ve just got to get better,” Hudson said.
Hudson got off to a strong start at the beginning of the contest, scoring Florida’s first 12 points in the opening nine minutes of the game. Allen then scored eight consecutive points of his own, giving Florida a 20-16 lead.
From there, baskets by guards Egor Koulechov and Chris Chiozza, as well as centers Kevarrius Hayes and Gorjok Gak, padded Florida’s advantage heading into halftime.
Clemson made it a one-point game with 50 seconds left in the frame, but a putback dunk and free throw from Gak and a buzzer-beating three-pointer from Koulechov extended Florida’s lead to seven as time expired.
While UF looked strong on both sides of the ball in the first half, Clemson made adjustments in the final 20 minutes of action, out-rebounding the Gators 18-17 and holding them to 37.5 percent shooting from the floor to secure the comeback win.
“When we’re not scoring at a pretty high rate, our defensive inefficiencies are exposed,” UF coach Mike White said. “We’ve seen it all year… That’s who we are defensively right now.”
Jump shots from Chiozza and guard Deaundrae Ballard along with three-pointers from Hudson and forward Keith Stone gave Florida a nine-point advantage with just under six minutes left.
But in the end, fouling hurt the Gators, as Clemson made seven free throws in the final five minutes to diminish Florida’s lead. While Chiozza made a layup to secure a one-point advantage with 1:27 left, Thomas’ dunk sealed the deal.
With a few fouls to give, the Tigers didn’t allow the Gators to get off a good shot in the last 30 seconds, and Clemson left Sunrise with the win.
Florida has now lost four of its last five games despite being voted No. 5 in the AP Top 25 Poll at the beginning of last week.
“Every loss hurts, especially when these guys have gotten so much noise about how good they are,” White said. “It’s been a challenge to find that hunger.”