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Friday, May 27, 2022

ATLANTA - It would be scratching a broken record to say things have changed in a year.

Yet, one season removed from a Southeastern Conference Tournament where the Gators never trailed, this time they never led.

In a tale of two halves, UF fell 80-69 to Alabama in the first round of this year's SEC Tournament.

The loss all but guarantees the Gators will play miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years and head to the National Invitational Tournament instead.

UF was down by as many as 28 points in the first half.

"Does it take getting down 25, 26 points to get a team to start playing defense?" UF coach Billy Donovan said.

The defeat also places UF on the wrong side of history. The Gators are set to become the first team since Kansas in 1988 to miss the Big Dance after winning it all.

The crushing blow cuts deeply for the Gators players, who understood heading in how much this one meant.

"How much more needed to be said?" UF forward Dan Werner said. "We we're playing for everything. You would think our guys would be ready to go."

The Gators began the game by missing their first five shots, and before five minutes could count off the clock, found themselves in a 14-0 hole.

The score ballooned to a 30-5 advantage, and continued to build as time elapsed.

The half came to a close with the scoreboard reading 46-23.

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"You have to come out and punch someone in the mouth," junior Walter Hodge said. "They did that to us."

UF hit just 9 of 31 shots in the period, including 4 of 13 from beyond the arc and committed seven turnovers.

The Gators were thrashed 26-12 on the glass, and allowed Richard Hendrix and Mykal Riley to combine for 29 points, six more than UF.

The Gators scored back-to-back unanswered points just once, hitting four straight to bring the score to 42-18.

It's hard to imagine, and impossible to predict what Donovan said at halftime.

Speights led the way out of the tunnel and his eyes never left the ground. The despondent center failed to attempt a shot from the field in the opening period, and grabbed as many rebounds as the fans in the stands.

The Gators gathered for a quiet "go team" chant before walking slowly back to the court.

"They manhandled us," said Speights, who finished with 15 points. "We came out playing soft and we paid for it."

The Gators may have looked down for the count, but this team, whose heart served as its backbone all season, tried to get up one last time.

Trailing 55-30, UF went on a 21-2 run to pull within six at 57-51. After failing to make a field goal for more than nine minutes, it was the Tide's turn to hang their heads.

The Gators made their fans faithful jump to their feet, which to that point seemed glued to the floor.

UF continued to hang tough, but the play of Riley-who averages 14.5 points per game-kept the Gators just outside of reach.

Riley hit three key 3-pointers during the span and finished with a game-high 26 points.

UF's run flat lined as the Gators went cold. Hendrix dunked on a fast break to bring the lead to 13. Alabama missed a plethora of free throws down the stretch, and UF was able to come within 8, but never close enough.

Along with the contest, the Gators dropped their chances of heading into the ideal type of March Madness. Now, UF will prepare to compete in the NIT, a compensation many of them are trying to accept.

"There is no next," Speights said.

Looking back on the season, Donovan wasn't pleased with his young players' growth. It seemed he was tired of using age as an excuse.

"I'm not really that excited about these guys being sophomores," Donovan said. "I don't think you've seen a basketball team that's changed at all this year."

"Just because they'll be one year older doesn't mean they'll be one year better."

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