As Mitchell Smith fired celebratory arrows into the Florida crowd after a clutch three-pointer, a noticeable chunk of the O’Connell Center streamed toward the exits.
The early departees missed one of the fiercest comebacks in recent Florida basketball history, but ultimately escaped a heart-wrenching finish Wednesday night.
Guard Tre Mann, whose 21 points led all scorers, shaved the eight-point deficit with a pull-up jumper. After four more Florida points, junior Colin Castleton equalized with two clutch free throws.
Florida held a monopoly on the momentum and needed just one stop to force overtime. However, Missouri guard Dru Smith knifed through the Florida defense and willed home an acrobatic layup at the buzzer to down the Gators 72-70.
Mann catalyzed Florida’s offense the entire first half and led UF to a scorching start off the tip. The Gainesville native’s jumper and a fast-break layup sandwiched a Noah Locke three and forced an early timeout.
Locke devastated the Tigers from distance. The junior set up shop from all over the perimeter and drained three triples in the first half.
Missouri answered the first bell and snatched a 10-9 lead after center Jeremiah Tillman rattled the rim. Coach Mike White switched over an extended zone press that fueled a dominant defensive stretch against Kentucky last Saturday, but a more seasoned Missouri team found gaps in the Florida zone.
Florida managed to stay ahead for most of the first half, but an 8-0 run capped off by an inbound off Castleton’s backside gave the Tigers a 29-25 lead.
The Tigers carved up the Gators with strong ball movement and generated 10 assists on 15 first half field goals. Xavier Pinson received an excellent pass, and he rippled the net to give Missouri a game-high eight-point lead.
“They’re a great passing time through Tillman,” White said. “They got us into tough rotations and had us working a lot.”
A staggering 15 first-half turnovers coupled with a 6-1 deficit on the offensive glass erased UF’s impressive 55% shooting percentage in the opening stanza.
Florida flirted with the danger zone to open the second half when a Mitchell Smith three granted the Tigers a double-digit lead. But the team responded admirably and Castleton finished a 7-0 run with an aggressive move in the post. However, the Michigan transfer jawed at Mizzou and received a technical.
The Gators kept the game within five points during the next 10 minutes and threatened to surpass Mizzou after Duruji posterized Tillman and Locke completed a gritty layup. The O’Dome roared with the intensity of a packed house but dimmed down for a timely Pinson three.
Mann brought the Gators back within two after he glided into Tillman and kissed his floater off the glass. Pinson, however, pegged UF back again with a layup. Mann’s phenomenal first-half form persisted as he finished the game with 21 points and led the Gators to its defiant, late-game surge.
“Tre played with great activity,” White said. “He scored some big baskets of course. He went nine-of-11 against a team that's a terrific defensive program.”
Pinson’s bucket started a 7-1 run for Missouri, which gave just enough of a cushion to survive Florida’s charge. Despite the result, Mann believes the 8-0 run shows his team’s physical and mental toughness and its unrelenting fight.
The Gators will wrap up the regular season against Tennessee Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. The action will stream on ESPNU.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @declanaw