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Friday, August 12, 2022

NEW YORK - In the city that never sleeps, the Gators put their troubled season to rest.

Doomed by missed free throws - it hit just 8 of 21 - and sloppy play - 10 turnovers in the second half alone - UF fell 78-66 to Massachusetts in the semifinal round of the National Invitation Tournament Tuesday night.

"It's hard to shoot that poorly from the line and have a chance to win," UF coach Billy Donovan said.

At one point, UF missed five in a row from the charity stripe and failed to convert on a crop of inside attempts.

UF (24-12) dominated much of the game, including the first half where it led by 9, but fell apart in the final 13 minutes, when Massachusetts (25-10) turned things quickly.

The Minutemen went on a 6-0 run to take the lead at 49-47 and never looked back.

Whether it was fatigue, immaturity or just a lack of talent, why UF faded in those closing minutes is hard to understand.

"I don't know what happened," center Marreese Speights said. "It's just really depressing."

Say what you will about the past, but on this night, the blame falls far from Speights' broad shoulders.

The Gators wasted a tour-de-force performance by the big man, who scored 16 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the loss.

After the game, Speights spoke about his future.

"I would like to come back," he said. "I have to talk to coach and to my family. We'll see what happens."

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The Gators wore white in the game but hardly played the role of host.

Crimson-clad fans dominated the makeup of Madison Square Garden's famed stands.

There were only a few pockets of Gators faithful, most of whom cheered for Dan Werner.

Six people, including Werner's brother Ron, sat behind one of the baskets with their chests painted to spell out his name.

Werner, who scored a solid 11 points with 10 rebounds, insisted afterward that fatigue shouldn't have been an issue in a game of this stature.

"If you weren't tired, you weren't trying," Werner said.

Both teams did their part to build layers on the Garden's backboards.

The Gators shot just 16.7 percent from 3-point range. The Minutemen weren't much better, stroking a woeful 20.8 percent.

"I don't think either team played well offensively," Donovan said. "We just missed so many free throws that we gave them more opportunities."

Outside of the stats, and beyond the numbers, where this team will head from here becomes the true focus of this game.

In recent weeks, the squad did its part to toss aside the scars it carved through the embattled season, in which UF started strong and faded when it mattered most.

Before tonight, it seemed the Gators were headed in the right direction. Will this be a step back, or just another reason to step forward?

"They're really respectable kids, and they always listen," Donovan said. "But I'm just unsure if they really believe in their heart how they should take this and move into next season."

Guard Jai Lucas tried to answer his coach's question, a theme the Gators have fought throughout the year.

"I don't think we'll take a step back," Lucas said. "We just hit a wall."

How the team responds from crashing in a game it had in its pocket is something only the future can decide.

For the first time this year, however, UF's youth is a sure positive. With the games gone and the season on the backburner, the group can focus on growing together and improving - something they have plenty of time to achieve.

"You can't discount what we've done in the past two weeks," freshman Chandler Parsons said. "We have something to build on for next year, something we think is worth building on."

With 17:17 left to play in the second half, guard Nick Calathes scored his 8th point and broke UF's all-time points record for a freshman, which was set 27 years ago by Ronnie Williams at 546.

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