Florida had only a slim chance of beating No. 1 Michigan State on Saturday, even before Gators big man John Egbunu committed all five of his allotted fouls in what seemed like three total minutes of play. And Florida has very little chance of winning any game against a good team in which it misses threes at the rate it seems prone to, or in which Kasey Hill sabotages his offensive game by missing more than half of his free throws.
But no one told the Gators they had no shot — and so they fought, whistle to whistle and in almost every second between, and fell valiantly, in a 58-52 defeat.
Hill had the best game of his junior year off the bench in this one, scoring 13 points despite making just three of eight freebies and adding six rebounds and four steals, and he and Chris Chiozza (11 points and three crucial threes) both played far better than they did on Tuesday at Miami. Dorian Finney-Smith matched Hill with 13 points, and snagged six boards and dished three assists. Devin Robinson scored 10 points and pulled down nine boards, just missing another double-double in a year seemingly ripe for him to get many of them.
Alas, the output from that quartet was really about all the Gators got, thanks to woeful shooting for much of the first half and a failure to make a three until the second period. Without Egbunu — who went to the bench with two fouls with 17:52 on the clock in the first half, and to the bench with four fouls with 16:50 in the second half, and to the bench for good with a fifth foul at the 4:24 mark — Florida didn't have any easy way of scoring consistently, and had to scrap for its points.
Scrap, they did: Hill, Chiozza, KeVaughn Allen, and DeVon Walker combined for nine steals that fueled offense, and the Gators pulled down 12 offensive boards even without Egbunu to snare them. But Florida also allowed 16 offensive boards, and couldn't chase around Michigan State's endless screens all night.
The Gators chased for as long as they could, and brilliantly, to their credit. Player of the year candidate Denzel Valentine led all scorers with 17 points, but they came like blood from a stone on 17 shots. Matt Costello's eight points, all on stabilizing baskets in the paint, were arguably more damaging than Valentine's, and Bryn Forbes's 12 points similarly hurt the Gators more than an inefficient night from a great player.
Florida has proven, in holding Miami and Michigan State to 66 and 58 points (and the gifted 'Canes to a point per possession, and the rugged Spartans to even less) this week, that it can play ferocious defense against even the nation's best teams. What the Gators haven't figured out yet is how to — or whether they can — generate offense when they absolutely must.
That defense will carry the Gators surprisingly far, I think. Whether it will give out before Florida's offense can shoulder some of the load is less certain.