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Albany 61, Florida 59: Gators collapse down stretch in NCAA Tournament

A fine season comes to a bitter end.

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

Thousands of miles from sunny Gainesville, the No. 5 Florida Gators had a double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter on No. 12 Albany. Then, in the heat of the Carrier Dome, the Gators wilted.

Florida scored just seven points in the fourth quarter, and just four in the final 8:05 of play — two of them on a layup with 0.4 seconds to go that actually sealed the Gators' fate — and collapsed to a 61-59 defeat at the hands of the Great Danes.

It was the Gators' first loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament under Amanda Butler in four tries, but it's not quite so simple as blaming coaching for a loss that came after her team just couldn't make shots in the second half. Florida shot just 35.2 percent for the game, and went 3-for-19 from three, but the Gators were also an amazingly abysmal 6-for-30 from the floor in the second half, shooting just 20 percent after intermission.

That wiped out the good done during a brilliant second quarter in which Florida outscored Albany 24-8. The Gators took a 15-point lead into halftime, and simply couldn't keep it down the stretch.

Eleanna Christinaki had 11 points to lead the Gators, and Ronni Williams and January Miller each had 10 points to back her up. But Florida's balance just couldn't match Albany's firepower, in the form of Shereesha Richards and — especially — Imani Tate. Richards had 14 points, well below her season average, before fouling out, but Tate scored 28, with midrange jumpers and foul-line conversions leading the Great Danes' march back from deficits that grew as large as 17 points and twice reached 11 points in the fourth quarter.

This is the sort of loss that sours a comeback season for the Gators, who found a new identity after the embattled Butler's semi-surprising retention (and extension) last summer and morphed into a press-happy squad that knocked off several ranked teams. It's likely that Florida will have beaten multiple Sweet Sixteen teams once the NCAA Tournament is done, and possible that the Gators took down Elite Eight and Final Four outfits as well.

But Florida's frenetic style also included committing a ton of turnovers and fouls, and masked deficiencies in individual scoring prowess that would come back to haunt the Gators if and when things went wrong, most often when Williams almost inevitably found herself in foul trouble. Without a go-to scorer beyond Williams or any way to find consistent offense in the halfcourt, the Gators were about as susceptible to upsets as they were capable of upsetting better teams.

25 turnovers handed to the Great Danes, 11 on steals, helped this game become an upset of Florida, not by it. And it will leave fans pining for a genuine NCAA Tournament run under Butler upset for at least one more summer.