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Thursday, May 19, 2022

There must be something about the air in Columbia, S.C.

Last year, Florida led for the final eight minutes before allowing a layup at the buzzer to lose 70-69. The Gators went on to finish 9-7 in the Southeastern Conference, go 1-1 in the SEC Tournament and miss the NCAA Tournament.

Wednesday night UF managed to lose a seven-point lead in the final seven minutes to South Carolina, whom the Gators are battling for position in the SEC East and Big Dance.

Florida found a way to lose a game in which it shot 56 percent while its opponent shot 38.2 percent.

Listen, even the best college basketball teams have a loss during the year that makes no sense. There is some randomness in 18- to 22-year-olds.

The Gators currently have a better resume than the Gamecocks, but the gap is slimming. South Carolina has nine losses, including Wofford. UF has seven.

Florida has a bad loss too — South Alabama (RPI 226). A strong nonconference schedule allowed the Gators to overcome those screwups. This isn’t the time to rekindle poor play.

UF had done a good job so far in SEC play of winning games it should. Florida lost to Kentucky (one of the best teams in the country), at Vanderbilt (the Commodores are having one of their better years) and a one-point loss at Tennessee.

Now Florida has started down a perilous path. It has a lot of games it will be an underdog toward the end of the season. The Gators are likely to lose another close one — five of their last seven games have had a margin of single digits.

UF let a lesser team stick around, thanks to 20 turnovers and a 10-of-23 performance (43.5 percent) from the free-throw line. The Gators led from the 16:31 mark of the first half to 8:18 left in the game.

Earlier this week, I asked what UF’s strategy would be for handling USC guard Devan Downey. The SEC’s leading scorer had averaged just less than 30 points in his last three outings against UF.

Erving Walker said the plan was to let Downey score but shut everyone else down.

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Forget that theory barely worked when South Carolina came to Gainesville. In that matchup, Downey had 36 in a two-point UF win (Chandler Parsons’ second buzzer-beater this season). The Gamecocks’ second-leading scorer, Sam Muldrow, had six.

So Wednesday night, Downey had what I would call a relatively “off” night. He had 24 points but made only one of six three-pointers and didn’t have nearly as many of his trademark unbelievable floaters or runners. It didn’t matter because Muldrow had 16 this time around and Brandis Raley-Ross chipped in 20.

Tough to say that strategy worked out, but the truth is South Carolina didn’t win this game. Florida lost it.

The Gators lost it with turnovers. They lost it at the free-throw line. They lost it because the Gamecocks were able to have 18 more shot attempts.

And I know Kyle Maistri beat this point into the ground in Wednesday’s paper, but Dan Werner’s presence on the court at the end of the game did hurt UF against South Carolina. I’m sorry, but it did. You can talk about intangibles and little things, but when one player is literally no threat to shoot the ball, the opponent figures that out eventually. He rarely shoots, even when he should.

And when he took a mid-range jumper late in the game, he airballed it. His shot attempts may be a small pool to evaluate, but they look bad time after time.

Good news is UF has a bigtime game against Xavier on Saturday to snap out of it.

UF needs to shake this one from its memory, because it has a tough final stretch. The Gators must beat Auburn at home and Georgia on the road to leave them needing one or two from the following: Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Kentucky.

The path would be easier if UF took care of business in Columbia.

Just like last year.

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