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Utah State 65, Florida 62: Gators find same old woes late in close loss

Florida went cold late and lost. Sound familiar?

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

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Florida Gators men’s basketball team played valiant defense against a valorous foe, but offensive struggles doomed them to defeat.

In their penultimate game of the 2010s, the Gators played the same song and seemingly its 50th chorus, going cold late and falling to Utah State, 65-62, in the Orange Bowl Classic.

Kerry Blackshear was just the latest Florida frontman to put together a bravura performance in a loss. His line — 22 points on 3-for-14 shooting from the field and 15-for-17 shooting from the free-throw line, with 14 rebounds, two assists, and two steals to go with them — was indicative of just how tough it was for the Gators to score all day against a lanky band of Aggies that both collapsed to the bucket and closed out on shooters.

And given its horrific start, Florida maybe shouldn’t have been in this game at all. The Gators opened the day 0-for-14 from the field, with two Blackshear free throws providing their only scoring through the first 8:49 of play.

The Gators played tenacious defense during that span and most of the game, though, allowing just seven points to the Aggies, then heated up and rallied back to take the lead at 23-22 with just over four minutes to play in the first half.

And it was tied at halftime, and 36-30 in Florida’s favor a few minutes into the second half, and 55-54 after a 6-0 run late in the second half. Florida was in this game that felt like an NCAA Tournament affair, fighting and clawing despite making nearly nothing from the field: Of Florida’s starters, only Scottie Lewis — who went 5-for-9 for 11 points — made more than three shots, but Blackshear, Keyontae Johnson (six points, seven rebounds), and Noah Locke (nine points) all took at least 12.

But Utah State made bigger shots when it mattered most, getting a go-ahead fallaway jumper from Diogo Brito with just over four minutes to play, a layup on a smart, quick pass in transition about a minute later, and a dagger of a three from Sam Merrill (who led the Aggies with 21 points, and also drew a key offensive foul on Andrew Nembhard with a flop) to cap the 7-0 run that swung the game for good.

And though Utah State played most of the game without big man Neemias Queta, that may have been a blessing in disguise on this day, as he left the game with four turnovers and zero points after knocking knees with Johnson in the first half.

Two of Johnson’s three makes came in the final 36 seconds, as Florida narrowed the margin of defeat, but he and Blackshear struggled mightily to put the ball in the hoop from the paint, and Johnson didn’t get Blackshear’s benefit of the doubt when it came to the whistles. The two combined to shoot 1-for-7 from three; Florida mustered just four makes on 17 tries from beyond the arc.

The Gators, as has been the case in so, so many losses this decade, went cold at the wrong moments, and lost as a result. In a make-or-miss game, they missed too many shots.

And so the same chorus of frustration will cry out, until or unless the lyrics change.