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Friday, May 20, 2022

Surprise.

After leaving the Orlando Magic and returning to Gainesville, one might wonder if the National Invitational Tournament was on UF coach Billy Donovan's mind.

Take a guess.

But after back-to-back national titles and nine consecutive trips to the Big Dance, that's exactly where he's headed.

"That may be the path we need to go," Donovan said. "These guys may need to be totally humbled in a way."

When the Gators (21-11) ducked out 80-69 to Alabama in the first round of this year's Southeastern Conference Tournament, the team showed its lack of humility and maturity in the opening minutes.

UF came out barely breathing and fell behind 14-0 to an Alabama squad just two games above .500.

Similar to the loss against Kentucky less than a week before, the Gators didn't play desperate until they truly were, and as in all walks of life, desperation is just steps away from failure.

"They manhandled us," center Marreese Speights said. "We came out playing soft and we paid for it."

The Gators failed to bring the proper disposition and fell behind 30-5 at one point, and 46-23 heading into intermission.

UF was a pathetic 9 of 31 from the field in the half and allowed Alabama players Richard Hendrix and Mykal Riley to combine for 29 points, six more than UF.

It was clear from the tip-off that UF didn't have it. Flat would be an understatement for a team competing in a game with everything hanging in the balance.

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The Gators looked despondent before heading back onto the court. Speights, who failed to attempt a shot or grab a rebound in the period, led the way and never let his gaze falter from the ground.

The team gathered for a relatively quiet "Go team" chant before taking the floor and facing their final chance.

UF started off slowly but suddenly sprung to life and gave its season one final gasp.

Trailing 55-30, the Gators reeled off a 21-2 run to pull within 6.

Alabama called a timeout, and the Gators pumped their chests, regaining their pride, which to this point seemed lost somewhere between Atlanta and three weeks ago.

Riley, who finished with 26 points, hit the surging Gators with several daggers. UF tried to hang tough but couldn't hold on tight enough. The game, and its season, slipped through its fingers.

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

The final scoreboard read 80-69, and one day before a tornado struck the Georgia Dome, the Gators' chances of playing in the NCAA Tournament had spun out of control.

UF had only itself to blame.

The Gators lost eight of their final 11 games and failed to convert several opportunities to punch their ticket.

UF will now ready itself for the NIT, a tournament so unheralded, its Web site quizzes fans on how many teams are involved.

"This is going to be hard to swallow just watching those guys play, knowing that we should be there," freshman Chandler Parsons said.

The shock and disappointment has little upside. For UF, a trip to the postseason isn't what it used to be. For the last decade, the Gators have defined success by reaching the NCAA Tournament. In the last few years, the bar has been set even higher.

So for such a young team, who may have decided its fate before even starting, this journey to the NIT is hard to celebrate.

"There is no next," Speights said.

The Gators big man is right. As far as the future is concerned, next is now. However, instead of lacing up and joining the illustrious field of 65, UF entered a group of 32 bidding for a chance to end up in New York instead of San Antonio.

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