Florida’s late-game fade brings back bad memories of last year’s Elite Eight
PHOENIX – Screams of delight from Louisville fans still echoed through the hallways of the US Airways Center on Saturday when a security guard swung open the doors to Florida’s locker room and revealed an entirely different scene.
Kenny Boynton slumped against the back panel of his locker as if he was trying to disappear into the wall. Erving Walker wrapped a yellow towel around his head and dabbed at his tear-stained eyes with another. Scottie Wilbekin sat head down in a folding chair, eyes staring a hole at the patch of carpet in front of his locker.
Season-ending losses often inspire pained reactions from freshly eliminated NCAA tournament teams, but Florida had more reason to be depressed than most of its peers. The Gators squandered an 11-point lead in the final eight minutes in a 72-68 loss to Louisville, an outcome reminiscent of their late collapse against Butler in the same round a year ago, when they blew another 11-point, second-half lead.
“We had the game last year in mind the whole time in the second half today,” Florida center Patric Young said. “We didn’t want that to happen again, so when it turns out it still does, it just makes it so frustrating.”
If the stomach-turning memory of the Butler loss tainted last year’s 29-win season for Florida, then letting another Final Four berth slip through its fingers probably will have the same effect this year. The Gators salvaged an erratic regular season by improving their defense and riding the smooth stroke of freshman Bradley Beal in the NCAA tournament, but that formula failed them against Louisville.
Between when Florida pushed its lead to 65-54 with 8:16 to go and when Louisville took its first second-half lead 7:10 later on a Chane Behanan jumper, the Cardinals scored on seven of 10 possessions. Beal, often chided for not being aggressive enough during the regular season, failed in his bid to rescue the Gators, missing all four of his shots in the final six minutes, including leaving the potential tying 3-pointer short with 11 seconds to go.
“We wanted to get a ‘3’ up early and we wanted to crash the boards because we knew they were kind of small,” Beal said. “I thought it had a chance when it left my hands, but it just didn’t go in.”
The easiest explanation for Florida’s collapse is that the Gators were victims of their own first-half success. Florida hit 8-of-11 first-half 3-point attempts against Louisville’s trademark matchup zone, so the Cardinals changed to man-to-man in the second half and switched every ball screen to make sure they got a hand in the face of shooters. The Gators missed all nine of their second-half attempts from behind the arc and did a poor job adjusting to the Cardinals’ unexpected defensive wrinkle.
Too many times the Gators were lax with the ball when they drove. Too many times they settled for contested jump shots early in the shot clock. And too many times they ignored Young and Erik Murphy in the paint even though those two combined to go 9-of-12 from the floor in the game.
“They were playing behind me whenever I posted up,” Young said. “I’m not looking to score every time I touch the ball, but it’s good to have a balance. When you’re trying to stop another team’s run, it’s important to go inside and maybe you can pick up a foul.”
Florida’s late-game defensive issues were two-fold: It couldn’t keep Louisville point guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith out of the lane and it couldn’t solve the matchup issues Behanan posed.
Siva carved up Florida’s defense for nine assists despite fouling out with just more than four minutes to go, and Smith erupted for 19 points in just 22 minutes off the bench. The 6-foot-8 Behanan also capitalized in the paint, especially whenever Florida went to a four-guard look, scoring 11 of his 17 points in the final 10 minutes.
Florida’s disappointment at falling just short of the Final Four for a second consecutive season eventually may be tempered because it figures to be in contention to get there again next season. Even if likely lottery pick Beal enters the draft, only he and Walker will depart from this season’s team, leaving behind a talented roster that should have ample motivation.
But Florida was in no mood immediately after the game to ponder its future. The sting of a second consecutive crushing Elite Eight loss was too fresh.
“For about 37 minutes, we played a great game,” Wilbekin said. “The last three minutes, we let it slip away again.”
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