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Monday, May 20, 2024

Gators lose in heartbreaking fashion, fall to Colorado in Round of 64

Despite Walter Clayton Jr.’s career-high 33 points, KJ Simpson propelled the Buffaloes over the Gators in final seconds.

Florida guard Walter Clayton Jr. fires a jump shot in the Gators' 77-57 home win over the Merrimack Warriors on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.
Florida guard Walter Clayton Jr. fires a jump shot in the Gators' 77-57 home win over the Merrimack Warriors on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

INDIANAPOLIS – Walter Clayton Jr. gave it his all. Down by as much as 13 points in the second half of the Gators men’s basketball team’s Round of 64 game against the Colorado Buffaloes Friday, Clayton Jr. scored 26 second half points to give Florida a chance.

With nine seconds to go, the senior guard pulled up from way beyond NBA 3-point range — from Bloomington — to tie the game at 100. With 5:23 to go, Florida faced its largest deficit. A comeback seemed impossible, given the fact Colorado shot 65.4% in the second half.

But Clayton Jr. single-handedly kept Florida’s season alive. Multiple and-1 layups, 3-pointers and the game-tying 3 had the Gators lined up for an overtime game.

“He’s a fantastic player,” head coach Todd Golden said. “He believed the whole time that we get back in the game. Did a great job attacking the rim late, obviously that big 3 to tie it up. Fortunate to have him.”

However, there was still a lot of time on the clock. Buffaloes guard KJ Simpson quickly took the ball up the court to call a timeout with 6.1 seconds left. 

Then, as the seconds ticked down, Simpson got the ball and dribbled towards the baseline. The Colorado guard got questionable separation off of guard Zyon Pullin, and with a little over four seconds remaining, Simpson hoisted a shot over him. The ball hit the rim, and went vertically in the air, looking as if it’d rim out. Though, the ball hit the rim again and rattled around the rim before dropping in with 1.7 seconds to go. 

“I thought ZP did his job,” Golden said. “Stayed in legal guarding position. Stayed between the ball and the basket, and again somehow Simpson just created about seven feet of separation to get that shot off.”

Clayton Jr. then got the ball before half court, but his magic had run out. He hoisted a last-second heave that hit the backboard but never fell. The guard put his head down and his jersey into his eyes, trying to hide the tears draining down. He was heartbroken, and it was a heartbreaking ending to the Gators men’s basketball team’s season. 

“Definitely a tough loss for us,” guard Will Richard said. “But nobody thought we’d get to this point. We’re so proud of each other, proud of this group.” 

The Buffaloes (26-10) took down the Gators (24-12) 102-100 in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Clayton Jr. led all scorers with 33 points and scored the Gators’ final 16 points. However, four Colorado players finished with 16-plus points to ruin Florida’s tournament hopes, and Simpson’s final two of his 17 points on the night was the dagger. 

Coming into its contest with the Gators, Colorado scored 78.7 points per game, good for 53rd in the nation. By the end of the first half, they were more than halfway there, scoring 45 points. And with eight minutes to go in the second half, they had hit their average season mark. 

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Everything was falling. The Buffaloes shot 63% in the contest and went 6-for-10 from 3. 

Todd Golden likes to show emotion, both when he’s pleased and not pleased. But it never goes overboard. 

Friday, the officials handed Golden a technical foul with 7:44 remaining in the game with UF down seven points. 

After a foul was called on freshman forward Alex Condon, Golden was unpleased with the call because the whistle that blew was faint. In fact, the whistle never blew. The referee's whistle was broken. Not kidding. 

No one could hear it. However, the foul was called, and the Buffaloes extended their lead to 82-72. 

“It’s a confusing situation,” the head coach said. “A very delayed and-1 call. I wasn’t very happy about it. It’s never happened to me in my coaching career where somebody’s whistle didn’t work… I’ve had three technicals in my coaching career. He’s given me two.”

And after that, despite every 3-pointer, mid-range jumper or layup the Gators converted, Colorado would answer right back. 

“We didn’t defend the way we needed to give ourselves a great chance to win,” Golden said. 

But the Gators showed fight for all 40 minutes, something that wasn’t seen at times during the regular season. The team blew multiple double-digit leads in conference play, but that didn’t matter in Indy. 

Florida never quit. Strong performances from guards Riley Kugel, Will Richard and Zyon Pullin helped keep the Gators in striking distance. But it was Clayton Jr.’s second-half performance that earned UF its brief one shining moment. 

He finished with a career-high 33 points on 10-for-17 shooting. 

The absence of starting center Micah Handlogten played a major role throughout. Colorado scored 48 points in the paint, even despite Samuel and Alex Condon’s efforts on the boards. Condon recorded seven while Samuel had six.

This team faced adversity at the wrong time. Yet, despite all of that, despite facing a team that had won 10 of its last 11, it fought till the last second ticked off of the clock. 

“I’d definitely say it’s probably the closest team I’ve played on,” guard Zyon Pullin said. “From the stuff on the court to off the court, guys just wanted to be around each other. I can’t thank these guys enough.”

Colorado will move on to face the Marquette Golden Eagles in the Round of 32 Sunday. 

Florida will head back to Gainesville and prepare for an offseason earlier than they hoped and expected. 

Pullin and Samuel are expected to leave the program at the end of the year. The two played major roles throughout the year, as Samuel led the team in rebounds and Pullin was one of the best point guards in the country, earning a First-Team All-SEC honor. 

“We're going to miss ZP and Tyrese a lot,” Golden said. “They're going to be hard to replace. But the goal is that these younger guys will continue to grow and get better, and we'll find guys that are the right fit with great attitudes and great work ethics and really will want to be Gators. We'll continue to build it that way because it's what I believe in and it's worked for us.”

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

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