The last 10 minutes featured almost everything going wrong.
After leading by as many as 17 points in the second half — and in the first — the Gators faltered down the stretch, especially in a disastrous final minute, and fell, 87-84, to a resilient Duke team that executed a third comeback in as many games.
Hot shooting and great offensive design fueled the Gators for much of the night, as they raced out to a 21-6 lead and then erased a seven-point Duke lead with a second run to make it to halftime up 53-49.
Florida then came out hot again in the second half while also briefly stymieing Duke’s uber-talented freshman, Marvin Bagley III (30 points, 15 rebounds — for the second straight game, mind), to build a lead that swelled to 17 points at 74-57, and stood at 76-62 with 8:52 remaining.
From there, things went almost exclusively Duke’s way. The Blue Devils would hold Florida to just three field goals from that moment on, and would sink seven shots of their own — and the final 10 free throws of a nearly perfect 19-for-20 night at the line — to take back the lead for good.
And Florida’s final 90 seconds will inspire many who watched to state loudly that the Gators choked: Both Chris Chiozza and Jalen Hudson — named to the PK80 Invitational’s all-tournament team — committed turnovers in the final 1:18 of play, and the Gators’ final play featured Chiozza throwing a wild pass to Hudson that forced another wild pass to Egor Koulechov and a terrible look at the buzzer.
And while Chiozza (13 points, seven assists, six rebounds), Hudson (24 points, 10 boards), Koulechov (15 points), and KeVaughn Allen (17 points) all played well on the night, and Florida did lead the nation’s No. 1 — and almost inarguably most talented — team by double digits for significant stretches, the way the Gators looked at the most important moment of their most important game so far this season will color perceptions of this team for months to come.
The way that Florida played prior to that moment — brilliantly and daringly on offense and defense, and tenaciously against bigger post players despite an undersized lineup without a truly excellent individual post defender — will largely be forgotten, as well.
But Florida has played the latter way far, far more often so far this season, and will have every chance to play like that again in December, and either obviate the need for great play in the waning moments or earn the chance to prevail in crunch time. And that latter way, make no mistake, is good enough to make Florida both one of the most entertaining teams in college basketball and a national championship contender.
That sort of lofty status, though, comes with the expectation that clutch moments will arise. In Florida’s first truly significant experience with that this year, the Gators failed.
Here’s hoping that, after this week’s break for exams, they come back ready to pass tests on the floor.