For Florida, it had to feel like instant replay and deja vu: Sitting on 68 points, with next to no time on the clock, the Gators were in position to steal a game from a Big Ten team that it had battled for 15 rounds.
The difference this time? Tyree Appleby missed.
Appleby’s stepback three with seconds remaining clanged off iron in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center on Sunday — unlike his three to sink Ohio State in Fort Myers in November — and so Florida fell, 70-68, at the end of a 40-minute war with the Terrapins.
Leading that charge in Danny Manning’s first win as interim head coach were Eric Ayala and Fatts Russell, guards who had been struggling for most of the year. In this game, they snapped out of cold spells, combining for 38 points on 24 shots, making six of their eight threes, and extracting key extra points from the game via and-one makes.
Ayala and Russell also kept the ball from bouncing Florida’s way too often in the second half, recovering from committing most of their eight combined turnovers early to prevent the Gators from getting too grabby after intermission.
Florida did have some answers for that backcourt on this night, thanks largely to some stellar perimeter shooting. The Gators compensated for a 1-for-7 start from three by draining 10 of their final 20 triples, with C.J. Felder buoying Florida with three in the first half and Appleby raining five, the majority after halftime, for all of his 15 points.
The Appleby spree included two sunk in the span of 13 seconds with just about six minutes to go that constituted a huge 6-0 run for Florida and wiped out Maryland’s biggest lead of seven points in a blink.
But Florida’s only other player — and only starter — in double figures was Phlandrous Fleming, whose fantastic line of 15 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and a steal was marred by a late turnover that squandered a chance for Florida to go ahead and turned into a point for Russell. And Fleming only made three of his 12 shots, two of them threes, exemplifying how much trouble Florida had scoring when its treys were not falling.
As has also been a recent theme, foul trouble for Anthony Duruji and Colin Castleton limited both on the evening. Duruji spent much of it sitting, reappearing late in the second half for a crucial game-tying drive, while Castleton joined him on the proverbial pine for the latter part of the first half, then spent the second half jostling for position and trying to avoid further fouls before ultimately picking up his fifth foul on the go-ahead basket from Russell preceding Duruji’s leveler.
Maryland would respond to that equalizer with a game-winner — Donta Scott tossing in a leaner that was one of a few tough shots he made en route to 12 points — that might not have happened with Castleton around to play Florida’s last defensive series. (And had a potential moving screen that sent Appleby to the floor been called at the top of the play that brought Castleton’s fifth foul, he might have remained in the game.)
But Florida had its own shot at a game-winner, and had a first play designed for Myreon Jones snuffed out by a Russell deflection, then saw Appleby improvise to get enough clean air to launch a triple from the right side that has fallen for him before.
On this night, it didn’t, dropping him to 5-for-8 from three — and Florida to 7-3, its momentum stymied again.
After a November that proved these Gators have more than enough guts and grit and a feasible amount of firepower to be in every game, December has shown in a baffling loss to Texas Southern that they can still flatline, and in tough losses to Oklahoma and Maryland that having enough fight for 40 minutes alone is no guarantee of having a hand raised after the bell.