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Clemson 71, Florida 69: Gators go cold late, go down in Sunrise

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A smattering of clangs leads to emptiness in the end.

NCAA Basketball: Florida vs Clemson Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators held a lead late against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 edition of the Orange Bowl Classic on Saturday.

They didn’t hold it tight enough.

Clemson outscored and out-executed a frigid Florida team down the stretch, erasing a lead that was as large as 12 points in the second half and a nine-point edge before the Tigers’ closing 14-3 run, and pulled out a 71-69 victory that doubled as Florida’s fourth loss in five games.

The Gators got 23 points from Jalen Hudson, 14 from Chris Chiozza, and 12 from KeVaughn Allen, but precious few of them came late, with all three players — and Egor Koulechov — missing crucial shots in the waning minutes. An inspired bit of thievery from Chiozza — who picked the pocket of a Clemson player after a rebound, then put in a layup to take back the lead — was essentially Florida’s only offense in the final four minutes of play.

And that brownout spoiled what was otherwise a game effort from an undersized Florida team. The Gators limited Clemson bigs Donte Grantham and Elijah Thomas to just 15 points combined, and forced 15 turnovers, eight of them on steals.

But Clemson guards Marcquise Reed (22 points) and Gabe DeVoe (19 points) hit shots and got to the line at the moments when Florida couldn’t hit its own, and the Tigers’ aggressive driving — and some questionable officiating — yielded 30 free throw attempts for Clemson, almost twice Florida’s 17.

Though the Tigers only hit 20 of those 30 freebies, that did produce a 11-point advantage on free throws — Florida made just nine of its 17 shots at the charity stripe.

That advantage, plus scoring when it mattered most down the stretch, swung this one to Clemson — and swings Florida back into soul-searching mode.

With the meat of their non-conference schedule now behind them, and few notable triumphs to tout, the Gators aren’t going to like looking in the mirror in the near future.