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UConn 62, Florida 59: Gators flinch late, fall to Huskies

In this loss, though, there is ample reason to be hopeful.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators never led in the second half against the UConn Huskies on Sunday in Gampel Pavilion, fighting gamely just to get into striking distance again and again on the Huskies’ home floor.

And so their 62-59 loss — even if its last possession represented a last chance missed by the Gators — was par for the course on the day.

But the fight and the circumstances should leave a less bitter taste in Florida fans’ mouths than their last two results.

In this game, Florida established Kerry Blackshear as a threat when it could, getting him 15 points on just eight shots. Foul trouble — some of it attributible to some 50-50 calls going the way of the home team and its boisterous crowd — limited and then eliminated Blackshear, though, with his fourth foul sending him to the bench with just under eight minutes to go and his fifth disqualifying him before the game’s final four minutes had even began. (Blackshear also only tallied eight rebounds, making this his first game as a Gator without a double-double.)

And in this game, Florida found something it can rely on offensively even without Blackshear, as Andrew Nembhard took over in the second half and kept the Gators afloat without either their big man or much help.

Nembhard’s 14 points and seven assists came almost entirely after halftime, and he scored or assisted on eight straight points during one part of Florida’s stretch run. But Florida got precious little from its bigs not named Blackshear — Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh, and the fresh-from-injury Gorjok Gak combined for four points and five rebounds — and continued its season-long struggles to shoot, going just 5-for-20 from distance.

A well-played 1-3-1 zone helped keep UConn from running away from Florida in this game — despite leads that stretched to eight points twice in the second half, UConn never led by double digits — but helped concede 12 offensive rebounds. And stellar play and shot-making by Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital (a combined 25 points and nine assists), clean-up work by big man Josh Carlton (13 points, eight rebounds), and clutch shooting from Tyler Polley (three threes, 15 points) paced a Huskies squad that committed just nine turnovers and shot 22 free throws to Florida’s 13.

Still, Florida had chances to take the lead and tie down one and three points in the final minute. Both featured Nembhard misses, and the latter culminated in Keyontae Johnson passing up a three and turning the ball over on an offensive rebound.

So Florida fell to UConn, just like it did in its other three meetings with the forever-pesky, N’England-tough Huskies this decade, and Florida fell to 2-2, missing another shot at a quality win in a season that looks likely to be rife with struggles.

But this was struggle with strain that exceeded that shown against Towson, and a valiant effort in a heavyweight fight more than the eventual concession seen against Florida State.

As this young team learns and grows — or, maybe more fairly, if it does — games like this one may well go the other way. Games with shorter margins may become blowouts. And Florida might well round into the team that we still think it can be.

This game, more than any other, showed a path toward that.

It’s up to the Gators to start heading down that route.