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Duke 84, Florida 74: Gators can’t keep up with Blue Devils’ firepower

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Florida fell behind and never got back even.

NCAA Basketball: Jimmy V Classic-Florida vs Duke Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Florida’s greatest weakness on the court over the last three years of its men’s basketball team’s wander in the wilderness since a berth in the 2014 Final Four has been, without question, a lack of consistent offensive punch.

On Tuesday night, the Gators played Duke, a team that never seems to lack that — and the combination of Luke Kennard, Amile Jefferson, and Jayson Tatum sent Florida to the floor.

Kennard pumped in 29 points, splashing five threes, Jefferson scored a career-high 24 points and nabbed 13 rebounds, dominating inside with a variety of post moves, and Tatum scored 22 points in just his second collegiate game, as the Blue Devils built a lead late in the first half and held onto it until the game’s end for an 84-74 victory.

Florida got 20 points from KeVaughn Allen on an efficient 12 shots, 13 more from Kasey Hill, and 11 from Devin Robinson, but got no more than nine points from any other Gator, and simply didn’t have the firepower to match that Duke trio.

The Gators led late in the first half, 28-26, after Allen made the first three of the Gators’ night, but would be outscored 15-3 over the last 5:21 of play, with an Allen layup providing Florida’s only field goal of that stretch.

Florida would slice Duke’s lead to six points early in the second half, seven just before the under-eight timeout, and seven again with under three minutes to go, but could never get closer than that, with Duke — Kennard and Tatum, especially — answering the Gators’ charges with their own buckets.

And those individual efforts were about all Duke got — starters Grayson Allen, Frank Jackson, and Matt Jones combined to go 3-for-19 from the floor, and score just nine points — but they were more than enough on a night when Florida made an unseasonable six of its 11 threes, yet made just 20 of its 49 twos.

Florida won’t play a team better than Duke this year, not unless Kentucky improves a lot and finds a tier beyond Duke’s current spectacular level of play. (Duke also isn’t as good as it will be, not if Harry Giles can come back from his torn ACL to be a significant component of Mike Krzyzewski’s rotation.)

Mike White probably knows that, and his soon-to-be-infamous pre-halftime quote — “They’re really good. We’re not as good” — ought to be taken as an honest assessment of what it is like to match up with this Duke team, which could probably field a starting five of future NBA players. He probably also knows that a 10-point loss to that team in front of a partisan crowd in Madison Square Garden is hardly a bad defeat.

But what he learned tonight, or should have learned, is just the same lesson on offer from many of Florida’s defeats in recent years: Winning basketball games is much harder against good teams when points are easy to come by.

How he applies it — or if he can — will have much to do with how this team’s season unfurls.