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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Gators men’s basketball is a tournament team, but might be one-and-done

UF’s struggles down the stretch returned against Texas A&M in College Station

Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. drives in for a layup in Florida’s 79-70 win against Mississippi State on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.
Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. drives in for a layup in Florida’s 79-70 win against Mississippi State on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.

On Jan. 31, the Gators men’s basketball team earned its most important win of the season and its biggest in the Todd Golden era. The team took on a hostile Rupp Arena environment and came back from a double-digit deficit to defeat the then-No.10 Kentucky Wildcats in overtime. 

The win most likely solidified the team a spot in the NCAA tournament and extended the Gators’ win streak to four games. Getting a road win in the SEC will only benefit Golden’s squad as Selection Sunday approaches. 

“Heck of a win for us,” Golden said after the Kentucky game. “We’ve been knocking on the door for a win like this in our opportunities.” 

But Feb. 3, Florida’s win streak came to an end in College Station, Texas, against the unranked Texas A&M Aggies. In a game where the Gators led for the majority of the contest, second-half struggles caused the team to blow a 13-point lead and lose by one point. 

The team has had problems with closing games all year, and it showed in College Station. The Gators scored just 26 points in the second half, but there was minimal offensive flow, and UF struggled to get open shots.  

In the half, the Aggies shot 20 free throws compared to Florida’s two. 

And although there was a free throw discrepancy in the second half, Florida struggled to handle the sharp defensive pressure from Texas A&M in the final 10 minutes. 

“We did a great job, I thought going vertical both halves,” Golden said after the Texas A&M game. “Second half, those started becoming free throws and it allows them to set up their press, kind of change the pace of the game. Really, the biggest thing for me was that there were a total of 13 free throws taken by both teams in the first half, and then A&M took 20 in the second half to our two.”

There was a clear difference in the amount of fouls called, but the Gators scored 26 points in the second half after scoring 40 in the first. Additionally, the team shot over 50% from the field and were 7-for-16 from 3 in the first 20 minutes. They were in control. 

In the second half, this dropped drastically. The team was just 11-for-29 from the field and made just three 3-pointers on 13 attempts. 

If the Gators want to make a run in the tournament, they have to play more consistently for the full 40 minutes. Scoring droughts kill a team’s momentum, and especially in March Madness, a season could end because of it. 

A complete game can get the Gators to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. Against Arkansas, Florida showed it’s capable of dominating in both halves. The team won by 22 and earned its first SEC win. 

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Moreover, the team played a complete game against Kentucky, and despite a rusty latter part of the first half, they had an overall gutsy performance against a top-10 team. 

Against the Wildcats, the team played its best basketball. It answered almost every Kentucky basket and clutch shots down the stretch allowed UF to make a statement across the college basketball world. 

However, this was nowhere to be found in the final 10 minutes in College Station. The team struggled with turnovers down the stretch against the Aggies, coughing up three turnovers in the final 1:37. 

Before the loss against Texas A&M, the Gators almost surrendered multiple double-digit leads. Against Mississippi State and Georgia, both games could’ve ended in losses. The stronger teams stay consistent when it matters most, but UF has failed to do so. 

The Gators, without a doubt, have shown they can make a run. Winning in the SEC is no easy task, and players know the potential of the team. 

Earlier in the season, freshman forward Alex Condon said the sky is the limit for the team and believes they can be a late March team. 

Though, UF shot better overall in its matchup with the Aggies. Texas A&M finished shooting just 40.7% from the field and 26.7% from three. The Gators shot 44.6% from the field and 34.5% from behind the arc. Not great stats, but enough to win.

“Playing one of the better teams in the SEC, it’s a game we feel like we should have won,” guard Zyon Pullin said Feb. 3. “They just made more plays than we did. We didn’t come out in the second half and execute well enough on both ends.”

Even though UF’s winning streak came to an end against the Aggies, it got the wins it needed. And it’ll have another opportunity to cement itself in the NCAA Tournament Feb. 10 when the No. 16 Auburn Tigers visit the Stephen C. O’ Connell Center. 

Contact Bennett Solomon at bsolomon@alligator.org. Follow him on X @B_Soly11.

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