For the first time all season, it looked like Florida had both its offense and defense clicking at the same time. The future was bright — at least at halftime, with a 39-24 lead — for the Gators.
They spent almost the entire second half blinking. And wheezing.
After pushing their lead to 45-29 early in the second half, the Gators scored just 20 points over the game's final 16 minutes, in a dismal effort that served as a role reversal from the scintillating first half — and then some. When it was done, Kansas had an 71-65 win, and the Gators had their first losing record at any point in a men's basketball season since Florida lost to Georgetown in the 1998 NIT to finish at 14-15 on the season.
It's been that long. And it feels like it's been almost that long since the Gators were in the Final Four last April.
This is a different cast of characters, though, and a much smaller one. Florida played without Eli Carter again on this night, spreading 200 minutes among just eight players, and those players ran out of gas as Kansas ran roughshod.
Devin Robinson had a brilliant first half, and finished with 13 points — but with four turnovers, and five fouls, too. Jon Horford had 10 points and five boards, and he had four fouls, too. Chris Walker had 12 points in his finest game as a Gator, and he had little left in the tank when summoned in the second half; Kasey Hill, on a fine eight-assist, five-point, two-turnover night, was held in reserve for a little too long, as Billy Donovan tried to keep his best option on this evening fresh for the stretch.
Donovan was managing an eight-man rotation that features two freshmen, two sophomores, and a walk-on senior alongside Michael Frazier II and Dorian Finney-Smith, and that is hard. Playing basketball well in the face of a crowd that turned its intensity on the Gators like a blast furnace when its Jayhawks' fortunes turned is harder, and the Gators simply didn't do that in the second half. Tentative against an extended halfcourt defense that erased the driving opportunities Florida had in the first half, the Gators went ice-cold, eventually netting four of their 10 second-half field goals in the last 1:09. That did little but cut a double-digit margin produced by a flattening 36-9 run to the six-point spread of the final, thanks to Kansas's parade to the foul line (the Jayhawks made 27 of 32 free throws) continuing unabated.
The team that played the second half — a hamstrung, undermanned, overmatched team — is just what Florida is right now, more or less and my optimism about this team from almost a month ago is hard to maintain, even if I know the Gators have been beaten by some very good teams since then. (I'll bet that Florida's four losses are to teams that will win at least six combined NCAA Tournament games. You can bookmark this post.)
But Florida had a chance to knock out a titan tonight, and the titan got off the mat and fought back for a win largely because Florida punched itself out. The problem, here, seems to be stamina. And the cavalry coming — Carter if and when he heals, and Alex Murphy when he's eligible — won't fix that problem.
Either the Gators need to avoid getting gassed, or get a lot better. The latter is easier — and it's still going to be very, very hard.