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Vanderbilt 73, Florida 71: Gators fade late as Commodores sweep season series

Florida had a great chance to avenge one of its few losses. It let that chance slip down the stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

For about 30 minutes of action in Memorial Gym on Saturday, the Florida Gators had rolled with every Vanderbilt Commodores punch and stayed upright.

A 9-2 opening for Vandy turned into a nine-point halftime lead for Florida. Runs to get the Gators’ edge down to tenuous margins were met with combinations to expand that lead out to more comfortable sizes.

Then the Commodores took the lead — and Florida couldn’t quite keep its edge.

That’s the story of the 73-71 win for the ‘Dores, finishing a season sweep of the SEC runner-up Gators, whose two losses to Vanderbilt — each by a lay-up — have been the bêtes noires of an otherwise fantastic season.

And those losses have been painful in different ways. While Vandy made 10 threes to win in Gainesville, this Saturday brought slashing from Riley LaChance and Nolan Cressler (13 points each) and interior scoring from Luke Kornet (24 points) and Jeff Roberson (15 points on just five shots) against a Florida front line that consisted of Devin Robinson and Justin Leon, not the injured John Egbunu and the conspicuously bench-bound Kevarrius Hayes.

For most of the game, Mike White’s gambit to go small worked, with Robinson and Leon playing fine defense and spacing the floor to allow the Gators’ array of guards — KeVaughn Allen, Canyon Barry, Chris Chiozza, and Kasey Hill — to all finish in double figures in scoring.

But Allen vanished in the second half, scoring all of his 13 points before the break. Hill had five turnovers to go with his 10 points, and a fateful miss in the final seconds. Barry’s 15 points could have been 17 if not for an empty trip to the line in the second half. And Chiozza (11 points, four rebounds, four assists) was great, as has been the case for much of the last two months, but also arguably underused, as ever — even though his deployment left Florida hiding him underneath against Kornet instead of tasking him with challenging taller shooters, leading to a fair bit of the Vandy big’s success.

That success helped Vandy whittle away at the 12-point lead the Gators held with 12 minutes to play, and eventually snag a second triumph over Florida that should do wonders for the Commodores’ chances of being selected for the NCAA Tournament.

But on the flip side, this is another bad loss for Florida. It’s no worse than the Gators’ home loss to the ‘Dores — and Vandy has improved and turned itself into an arguably deserving March Madness participant since — but it may well set Florida’s ceiling at the No. 4 seed line, and probably means that the Gators need to avoid a loss next week in the SEC Tournament to avoid falling further.

On a day that could have been another great one for Florida’s road warriors, the wheels fell off.