Mizzou 63, Florida 60: Gators fail to vault same old roadblock

USA TODAY Sports

Florida led by 13 in the second half against Missouri. And then everything fell apart.

Florida used a 14-4 run to take a 49-36 lead on Missouri with 10:54 left in the second half on Tuesday night. From there, things went to shit.

That was the line of demarcation between Florida driving the ball effectively and settling for threes, between Florida handling the ball well and coughing it up, between excellent defense and defense that allowed the Tigers to roar back into the game, between execution that gave the Gators a lead and a final three that would have Billy Donovan quoting John McKay's old quote about his players' execution ("I'm all for it!") if he weren't a much calmer, more polite coach.

In that final 10:54, Missouri outscored Florida 27-11, Florida committed five turnovers and six fouls, and the Gators got just one non-jumper bucket, from Kenny Boynton on an inspired drive.

Florida could have used another one of those drives on its final possession. Instead, down one, with Missouri shutting down most of the Gators' options, Boynton hoisted a three with nine seconds left. It caught iron, and Florida didn't catch the rebound.

That was the moment the game was over, truly, even before Missouri hit the two free throws from the immediate foul to produce the final score — Missouri 63, Florida 60 — and before Mike Rosario airballed his three at the buzzer. It's the moment we'll all remember, because we remember Florida's losses on poor offensive execution at the final moment, because we now have four great examples in the last 24 months: Losses at Missouri and Arizona this season, and against Louisville and Butler in the last two Elite Eights, are four spectacular failures against four very good teams, and they constitute a trend.

The 21 double-digit victories Florida has in other games this year constitutes more than a trend, I think — if I understand statistics, basketball, and logic, that's a truer level of play — but they're not juicy, not revelatory. What is there to say about a Billy Donovan team thoroughly outclassing another team that hasn't already been said? It's the way that Florida deviates from what it does in the other 39 minutes and change of games that makes the end-of-half failures loom so large.

I don't have great stats for this, but I would wager heavily on Florida being much, much better on possessions that don't amount to isolations than ones that do. Scottie Wilbekin showed that at the end of the first half, chucking a missed three — but he also provided evidence to disprove that thesis on a cold-blooded spin-and-stepback three that gave Florida a 60-59 lead.

That three was, subjectively, awesome, an example of hero ball going so sweetly right. As good as it was, it was probably fool's gold. And focusing on single possessions is, too.

Donovan preaches process, as all good coaches should: The point of sports is not to win games at the buzzer, but to end up with more points than the other team at the end of them. You don't build teams to win close games; you build them to win games. You don't build teams to get lucky; you build teams that can neutralize luck. Florida's been very good at following process under Donovan, generally, and good at it this season, too.

The real problem with the final three tonight wasn't just that it was a bad shot in a vacuum: It was that it came after 10 minutes of play that allowed Florida to get to that point. And, in part, that's because Florida's not well-built to maintain leads in the sense that basketball traditionalists like to maintain leads, by pounding it inside to burly and consistent big men or by slashing to the hoop to draw fouls and add points and possibly foul out other players with time on the clock.

It hasn't been since at least Vernon Macklin's time at Florida, and even that's debatable, considering that Macklin shot under 50 percent from the free throw line. The 2006 and 2007 teams were very, very good at that, able to pound it inside to two big men and rely on a taller slasher in Corey Brewer to get contact and finish on drives, and the presence of both two bigs and Lee Humphrey's lethal perimeter stroke made it foolish to try doubling Al Horford or Joakim Noah.

This year's team has Wilbekin, Boynton, and Rosario, all without great size, and it's got a stretch four in Erik Murphy who's far more comfortable and more efficient from the perimeter; it has a harder time of doing the pound or slash and get fouled routine because Young is often the only guy underneath, and demands doubles on the rare occasions when Florida can get him the ball.

And even when Florida does get fouled, too often, it's Young (51.7 percent on free throws in 2012-13 entering tonight), Casey Prather (58.8 percent), or Wilbekin (67.8 percent) shooting free throws. Young missed two front ends of one-and-ones on the night, and Wilbekin missed another, and missed the back end of another one-and-one. Rosario, who had missed just five of 51 free throws entering Tuesday, missed one of two.

This play has bit Florida badly three times this year: Against Arizona, an inability to inbound the ball late was compounded by a missed free throw from Boynton that allowed Arizona to take the lead on a jumper; against Kansas State, Florida's ice-cold three-point shooting (5-for-19 on the game) was especially painful late, as the Gators missed all five of their looks in the last 10 minutes; against Missouri, it manifested in threes from all angles in the final minutes when all the Gators really needed was a few buckets to stem the tide.

Florida fans I've talked to noticed that the home wins over Mississippi and Kentucky both felt much closer than the final margins of victory (14 and 17 points, in case you forgot) indicated, and I know that's partly because we live in fear of something like what happened tonight in Columbia (and in December in Tucson, and in March in Phoenix) happening again. This Florida core is the same, minus Erving Walker, Bradley Beal, and Chandler Parsons, as it was in 2011, or 2012, and though it's obviously not as good in some ways without three of the program's finest players ever (and gets little credit for being better in many ways this year), it's also got the same DNA. The fear of falling late is only as real as we make it, but we have ample reason to make it real.

What I ask of fans, and of writers, and of all thinking people who watch basketball, is to consider that two points scored on the first possession of a game are worth just as much as two points on the final possession. Allow that a three that helps get a team a 12-point lead in the first half counts as much as a three to give a one-point lead in the final two minutes. Try to understand that leverage is what changes win probability, but that there are no points for degree of difficulty. Make sure you realize that Florida's freezes in the last 10 minutes of games are worse than its freezes in the final minute.

I've tried very, very hard to watch games intently on a play-by-play basis, and I know it's hard. The big play, and the late play, are the ones we remember. Joe Johnson made two shots in the final seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime to lift the Brooklyn Nets tonight, and led SportsCenter and topped its Top 10 Plays countdown as a result. Big plays will matter more than whole games as long as attention spans remain short.

But I'm begging you, especially you Gators fans, to try. Because recognizing that games are better samples than minutes of games, and seasons are better samples than games, will help you better understand how Florida's come up short in these games. It will help you better devise strategies to make things better. And, above all, it will probably remind you that Florida's a damn good team.

In all kinds of weather, I think we can try hard to understand the Gators in whole. If we don't, we're falling victim to the same abandonment of process that has failed them.

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