For the third time this season, Florida fought hard against unbeaten Kentucky well into the second half. And for the third time this season, it wasn't enough.
The Gators struggled to score in the second half against the Wildcats on Friday in their SEC Tournament quartefinal, finishing with just 22 points in the period, and fell by a 64-49 count to Kentucky, ending their run to make a sixth straight NCAA Tournament with an unlikely SEC Tournament title.
The Gators did, once again, exploit Kentucky's defense down low and on drives: Jon Horford nearly matched a career high with 15 points, and Kasey Hill and Eli Carter combining for 19 points of their own, 16 of which came on two-pointers. But they also made just two field goals in the final 9:28 of play, and shot just five free throws all day, as officiating that was inconsistent at best and Florida's lack of prowess at drawing fouls conspired to keep the Gators from narrowing a lead Kentucky never relinquished after the 8:44 mark of the first half.
And Florida got almost nothing from Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier, who combined to go 2-for-14 from the field; Finney-Smith's layup with 1:22 to play, the last basket of the game, was his first make in almost 37 minutes of game clock. Finney-Smith struggles against Kentucky's lanky defenders, who are among the few in the collegiate game who can match his frame and athleticism, and Frazier simply isn't at full health, clearly still hampered by a high ankle sprain suffered a little over six weeks ago against these Wildcats.
Karl-Anthony Towns had his second double-double (13 points, 12 rebounds) against the Gators in six days, all five of Kentucky's starters scored at least seven points, and Kentucky closed the game on a 14-4 run. This was the better team winning again, for the third time this season, much as Florida did in 2013-14, except that Kentucky is and was the more talented team.
The 16-17 record earned with this loss is likely Florida's to keep forever, too. The Gators are technically eligible for the NIT, because the tournament doesn't automatically disqualify teams with losing records, but Bracket Matrix's NIT bracketology had the Gators on the outside looking in earlier this week, and a win over Alabama — likely an NIT team — won't move the needle much. Florida would almost certainly accept an NIT berth — and, frankly, given the fight that this team's shown despite its lack of aptitude for playing basketball, I want that opportunity for these players. But that's the Gators' only realistic hope for postseason play: I can't see Florida wanting to play in the CBI, and the CIT doesn't invite high-major participants anyway.
And so this is Florida's fate, this year: A losing team by virtue of a third loss to the nation's best team, or that tip-in by Jacob Kurtz against Florida State, or the four other one-point losses this year; Billy Donovan's worst by record, and first without 20 wins, since his second year in Gainesville; likely the first team in almost 20 years to go from making the Final Four one year to missing even the NIT in the next.
It's a sad fate, and the autopsies and recriminations will come. But after a season that was as taxing as any in recent memory, it's a faint silver lining that this specific team's journey is seemingly at an end.