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Arizona 65, Florida 64: Gators let one slip through their hands near desert sands

Florida controlled most of its road test against Arizona on Saturday night. Until it didn't.

Christian Petersen

The proximate cause of Florida's 65-64 loss to Arizona on Saturday night was a brilliant running lay-up off the glass from Mark Lyons with seven seconds to go, one that gave the Wildcats their first lead since 7-5 at the 18:30 mark of the first half.

What came before it was the sort of risky play that has plagued the Gators in close games for two years, in a pattern that seems pathologically ingrained.

Kenny Boynton had one of his worst nights as a Gator, scoring just five points on 2-for-10 shooting, and missed two threes and the front end of a 1-and-1 and committed one of his three turnovers in the last 2:03 as Florida let a 64-58 lead slip through its hands like so much Arizona sand. Mike Rosario, who had one of his best nights as a Gator with 16 points, three rebounds, and three assists, committed two turnovers in that critical stretch.

And the Gators had been holding a lead despite old habits and old flaws resurfacing. 14 turnovers helped give Arizona possessions on a night when the Wildcats were plenty charitable on their own, and inconsistent three-point defense helped give Arizona new life all night, despite the Wildcats making just seven of 20 triples.

Ultimately, it is how Florida reacted to its first deficit of the second half this season in the final seconds it had to take back the lead was probably the least inspiring thing about a loss that will sit with fans like a swallowed porcupine. With a timeout in hand and a chance to get a play called, Boynton took the inbounds pass and raced across midcourt to no avail; passed to Rosario, who lost the ball on the dribble; and Scottie Wilbekin, who grabbed the loose ball, launched a desperation three with no chance of falling ... even if it had come before the buzzer.

That's a snapshot of the failure of the guard-centric Florida teams of the post-title period that reminds fans of so many leads eroded by missed jumpers and sloppy ball-handling, and that this game was seemingly in hand for so long without much effort to get the ball inside — Florida managed just four shots in the final five minutes, all jumpers — will only reinforce that idea.

But forgetting 30 minutes of a game to remember five ignores that the Gators got even less from Boynton than the little they have routinely gotten this year so far, had only three players in double figures, took only eight free throws to Arizona's 21, and got just two rebounds from Patric Young and still led throughout a road game with a top-10 team.

All those words written about adversity in the game thread weren't written for me to take them back two hours later, and this loss should definitely sear the one way Florida cannot play and expect to win into players' heads. If Billy Donovan can't use this memory to fuel this team, he's a far lesser coach than I and many others believe him to be.

And the damage to Florida's standing in the national eye should be minimal: How severely can an AP voter or a NCAA Tournament Selection Committee member really penalize the Gators for losing by a single point on the road against a very good team?

This is a devastating loss for fans, myself included, who thought Florida was playing its best basketball since back-to-back championship seasons. It's a dispiriting loss for Donovan and his players, who had a six-point lead with less than a minute to go. And it's a dumb loss, considering that it's hard to write even as many words as I've written without falling back on the easy judgment that Florida choked.

It's not nearly the end of Florida's season. That's one of the great things about college basketball's regular season.

Adversity that can turn promise to greatness like coal to diamonds is another one of those great things.