Florida guard Tyree Appleby sliced into the lane with 23 ticks on the clock.
The Gators trailed Arkansas by five, 78-73, and desperation had settled in. The senior attempted a dump pass to forward Colin Castleton, but it was stolen by Razorbacks' forward Jaylin Williams.
Arkansas was off to the races in transition and guard Davonte Davis rocked the rim to seal Florida’s fate. He slapped the backboard in an act of pure adrenaline, drawing a technical foul and sucking the spirit out of the Stephen C. O' Connell Center.
Florida (17-11, 7-8) couldn’t outlast No. 18 Arkansas (22-6, 11-4) Tuesday 82-74. Castleton set a new career-high with 29 points, but collectively the Gators got bullied by the Razorbacks and were outrebounded 39-31.
“[Castleton] is an anchor for us so often,” Florida head coach Mike White said. “He battled and offensively, he was terrific.”
The Gators have become accustomed to living and dying by the 3-pointer this season, and they were very much alive at the beginning of Tuesday’s contest.
Appleby, fresh off a season-high 26 points against Auburn, caught fire early. The senior scored the game’s first six points with a pair of 3-pointers.
Forward Anthony Duruji and guard Phlandrous Fleming Jr. followed suit, draining looks from behind the arc. Florida built a 12-4 lead on perfect, 4-4, long-range shooting.
The Razorbacks weren’t about to get blown out of the building. Arkansas methodically scrapped its way back into the game, overtaking the lead from Florida, 16-14, on a 3-point swish from graduate student Chris Lykes.
Florida’s shooting from deep became streaky, but hit an upswing with a make in the corner by Fleming. Appleby hit his third 3-pointer on six tries after Fleming threaded the needle with a cross-court bounce pass. The Gators reclaimed the lead 23-20 with 8:20 until halftime.
The Gators kept Arkansas on the ropes with jump shooting, but Castleton made his first statement of the game with 4:41 left in the opening frame.
The 6-foot-11 inch forward rolled hard to the hoop, unguarded. Forward Myreon Jones whipped a pass directly to Castleton’s waiting hands. Florida’s leading scorer rose up and threw down an emphatic two-hand dunk, evening the score at 30.
Castleton would tally six of his game-high 11 first-half points in the final six minutes before both teams retreated to their locker rooms. Arkansas led UF 37-34 at the break behind guard JD Notae’s 10 points.
The Razorbacks’ leading scorer, Notae, continued to make his presence known early in the discord half. He easily converted a layup to extend Arkansas' lead to five, forcing a flustered White to burn a timeout.
Out of the 30-second stoppage, his team, especially Castleton, began to crank up the intensity.
The senior did damage on the free-throw line as the officials began to take hold of the game. By the 14:40 mark of the second half, the Razorbacks were called for six personal fouls. When the clock finally read all zeros, Castleton had attempted 10 free throws, hitting nine.
Florida’s leading scorer continued to dominate down in the paint, drawing closer to, and inevitably reaching, his third game with 20 or more points this season. With 7:57 remaining, he converted an and-1, drawing a foul on Arkansas’ Jaylin Williams and celebrated by signaling that the 6-foot-10-inch forward was “too little.”
The game remained tight throughout the second half, but tension began to fill the O’Dome as the clock dwindled to five minutes.
The Razorbacks missed six-straight 3-point attempts to begin the second half, but eventually found their stroke. Williams and guard Stanley Umude knocked down deep looks as Arkansas claimed a 68-64 lead with 3:49 to play.
Arkansas held a five-point lead as Jones squared his shoulders in the corner for a wide-open 3-point look. The shot clanked off the rim and into the waiting hands of Fleming. The graduate transfer lasered a pass right back to Jones, but his shot resulted in another miss.
Five points in 26 seconds from Notae kept momentum in the Razorbacks’ favor. Davis’ dunk and subsequent free throws closed out the road victory.
“You have to be somewhat, or very physical to have the defensive numbers,” White said. “We’ve been really, really good defensively at times, just weren’t good enough defensively tonight.”
With the loss, Florida drops to below .500 in conference play and still sits on the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Gators entered this week in Joe Lunardi’s next four out.
“I guess that’s the reality,” Duruji said. “We have to be desperate, we have to be urgent now.”
Two of Florida’s final regular-season games are on the road. The Gators travel to Athens, Georgia, for a matchup with the Bulldogs Saturday. UF defeated Georgia 72-63 Feb. 9 and hopes to complete the sweep of the SEC East rival. Tipoff is set for noon and can be seen on ESPN 2.
Contact Joseph Henry at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.