Things were looking up for the No. 23 Florida men’s basketball team.
After closing the regular season on a three-game win streak, coach Mike White said the Gators were playing their best basketball of the season.
However, UF couldn’t keep it going on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament against Arkansas. The Razorbacks eliminated the Gators with an 80-72 win thanks to cold shooting by Florida and a dominant effort on the boards. Florida especially struggled in those areas closing each half, allowing Arkansas to take a halftime lead and build a second-half advantage UF could not overcome.
The Razorbacks scored the final eight points of the first half, holding UF to 0-for-5 shooting over the final five minutes. The Gators missed all three of their three-point attempts during that span and ended the frame with guard Chris Chiozza’s layup getting blocked.
“We had a lot of opportunities there to spread our lead,” White said.
Then, tied at 46 with about 12 minutes to go, Arkansas went on a 14-2 run. In less than six minutes, the Razorbacks had mounted a 62-48 lead. Florida was 1 of 7 from the field in that span and missed six in a row at one point.
Florida finally got a few shots to go down at about the five-minute mark, but it wasn’t enough to save its chances of victory.
UF missed three consecutive triples between 3:09 and 1:46 left in the game, failing to chip away at the Razorbacks’ lead when given the chance. Then, down 69-60 with 1:05 to go, Florida guard KeVaughn Allen was fouled on a three-point shot. With a chance to make it a two-possession game, Allen — a 90-percent free-throw shooter — missed two of three from the line. Instead of cutting the deficit to six heading into the final minute, the Gators trailed 69-61.
Arkansas exploited Florida’s lack of size for a second consecutive game, out-rebounding the Gators 43-28. That disparity carried over into offensive rebounding as well, where the Razorbacks held a 14-9 advantage. Arkansas forward Daniel Gafford (five) and guard Jaylen Barford (four) accounted for nine of those 14, helping the Razorbacks edge Florida in second-chance scoring and points in the paint.
A pair of offensive rebounds by Gafford and forward Adrio Bailey helped the Razorbacks catch up to Florida late in the first half. Bailey’s rebound resulted in a basket for guard Jaylen Barford to make the score 29-24. Gafford dunked off his own rebound, decreasing the Gators’ lead to 29-26 with 2:11 to go.
The Razorbacks took a 48-46 lead in the second half after forward Arlando Cook tipped in his own miss.
With 3:59 to go the Razorbacks grabbed back-to-back offensive rebounds, one from Barford and another from Gafford who dunked to make the score 66-53.
“They pounded us on the glass,” White said.
Florida will find out its NCAA Tournament seeding Sunday at 6 p.m., but it seems unlikely that it will replicate last year’s Elite Eight run if it continues to struggle like it did against Arkansas. Losing the rebounding battle exacerbates a weakness, while shooting at a low percentage strips the Gators of their biggest strength. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi projects Florida to be a 6-seed in his March 10 edition of his Bracketology, and projects eight SEC teams to make the cut overall.
Follow Andrew Huang on Twitter @AndrewJHuang and contact him at [email protected].