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LSU 79, Florida 78: Gators go down on Senior Night in frustrating fashion

Florida’s seniors carried the Gators on this night. And they let them down, too.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It was Senior Night for Florida. So it was Senior Night for Jalen Hudson.

He made the most of that against LSU, putting on his finest performance as a senior — and maybe even as a Gator. On a night when the Gators could get precious little going on offense, Hudson took it upon himself to be the offense, and poured in a season-high 33 points. It was Hudson who scored 18 straight Florida points in the second half, Hudson who scored Florida’s final seven points, Hudson who made the go-ahead three in the final seconds.

It was the best Jalen Hudson we’ve seen since his scintillating junior year because it was the first time this year that we’ve really seen the guy we were expecting to see after he tested the NBA Draft waters and opted to return to Florida. This was the guy whose athleticism and touch make him a scorer extraordinaire, and the guy whose penchants for finding driving lanes and making tough leaning threes combine to make him a terror for the other team.

It was a Senior Night to remember for Hudson.

It was Senior Night for Florida. So it was Senior Night for Kevarrius Hayes, too.

Hayes has never been a great two-way player, but he has worked himself into being a great defender and a premier shot-blocker by working harder to maximize his athleticism as a defender than all but a very few Gators in history. And he was excellent as a defender on this night, collecting a career-high 15 rebounds, three steals, and two blocks against an LSU front line with three potential NBA players, at one point memorably blocking a shot on one side of the rim and then forcing a miss on the other side of it within seconds.

But Hayes has never been a great two-way player because he struggles on offense and with his hands, and those troubles predictably flared up tonight. He failed to cleanly catch what should have been a save of a steal in overtime against the Tigers, had the ball go off his body and out of bounds on a critical late rebound chance, and only got to a 4-for-8 night at the line by sinking two free throws in overtime.

It was neither a Senior Night to remember or forget for Hayes, a player whose legacy will be remembered fondly by those who wish to do focus on his strengths and bitterly by those who harp on his weaknesses.

But it was Senior Night for Florida. And so it was KeVaughn Allen’s Senior Night, too.

Allen has been maybe the most mercurial player in Florida’s history — which, given that the history includes players as disparate and passionate as Vernon Maxwell, Joakim Noah, and Jason Williams, says a lot about Allen’s play. It’s the play, after all, that is mercurial: Allen the person is all but tabula rasa, with an essentially flat affect that is easy to read as dispassionate. Seeing him smile or seethe has been a rare occurrence over his four years at Florida, and getting him to speak has been legendarily hard.

On this night, as has been the case on too many nights, Allen’s play matched his demeanor. He took just six shots — three fewer than Keyontae Johnson (15 points), one fewer than Hayes (who scored eight points), as many as Noah Locke (10 points off the bench) — and made just one. He had four points, three assists, one rebound, one steal. He was a non-factor on a night when one more make could have been the difference.

The ball found its way to him, open in the corner, on the final play of the game. Hudson, the obvious first option at that moment, had slipped and dished the ball away after being cut off on a drive. LSU was not closing on Allen, who has made 50 threes in each of his four seasons as a Gator; he had a few seconds to either drive a couple of feet and take a pull-up jumper or to rise and fire from three.

He dribbled in too far. He did not get a shot up. The buzzer sounded.

LSU won, 79-78.

For Allen, it was a Senior Night to forget.

And that trio playing as they did — Hudson heroically and explosively, Hayes hard but with limits, and Allen puzzlingly poorly and passively — summed up their careers and this immensely frustrating season.

Hudson going nova like this on a few nights earlier this year might have spared Florida some of its close losses, or spurred the Gators to big wins. Hayes developing into even an average offensive player, or simply learning how to better catch a ball, might have been the difference in a close contest. Or maybe Allen, a player I’ve long referred to as Special K for his potential to swing any game he plays in with his spectacular talents, was just going to go silent and dark and drag Florida down with him.

Florida is guaranteed just two more games this year, with Saturday’s regular season finale and a first-round game in the SEC Tournament. Hudson and Hayes played on this night like they want more than that, and well enough to spur Florida to an NCAA Tournament berth. Allen did not, and in so doing may have blown Florida’s best shot to get a big win that solidifies its standing.

Allen, Hayes, and Hudson, the cornerstones of Florida’s transition to a new era of basketball after the departure of a legendary head coach, had a chance to make their Senior Night an indelible, wonderful memory.

All three could not conspire to do so. And that will be indelible, but far from wonderful.