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Texas A&M 56, Florida 55: Gators claw back only to fall short in final moments

Florida’s Lazarus act didn’t work in College Station.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

When Florida trailed 17-6 with just 8:14 to play in the first half — or 21-8 with as little as 4:38 to go before halftime — on Tuesday night, it could’ve been over. And when Florida trailed 43-31 with 11:01 to play in the second half, it probably should’ve been over.

These being Mike White’s Gators, though, Florida somehow found itself with a 55-51 lead with 1:44 to play — and somehow still managed to lose to Texas A&M, too.

Phlandrous Fleming fouled Wade Taylor IV hard on a three-pointer with 19 seconds left, Taylor hit all three free throws, and Fleming’s potential game-winner at the other end drew iron — and went out on Florida, naturally — to give the Aggies a 56-55 victory, their first in a month.

For Florida, it was another missed opportunity and a waste of a furious comeback.

Colin Castleton had 15 points, 15 rebounds, two assists, and two blocks despite A&M throwing double- and triple-teams his way all night. C.J. Felder had seven points but had to leave early thanks to a hamstring injury. Myreon Jones cooled down some from three, but still drained three triples to join Castleton in double figures. And Fleming made a couple of the night’s biggest plays, tracking down a rebound that led to a Castleton dunk and drilling the three that put Florida up four.

But Fleming also had that foul. Tyree Appleby had a woeful night while fighting through a hamstring injury that seemed to sap some of his explosiveness, draining a big three late but going 1-for-8 from the floor and having just three assists. Niels Lane played another excellent game, scoring six points off the bench and notching an incredible assist on a bounce pass to Castleton as the conduit of the Fleming save, but the ball went out off his fingertips on that final Florida possession.

Florida did enough to make a game of what looked like a funeral — and an affront to basketball — for much of the first half by clamping down and grinding out possessions. But these Gators shot under 30 percent from the field, allowed 17 offensive rebounds, and committed 14 turnovers, essentially matching the futility they induced from Texas A&M’s offense, and thus didn’t do enough to win.

It’s a common theme for a team that surely now needs to get hot either in its final five regular-season games and/or the SEC Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament, and for a program that is constantly measured against its best years under Billy Donovan and found lacking under White. And more of these good efforts in which Florida fights back from adversity — some of its own creation, and some, like the flurry of bad and puzzling calls in this game, rotten luck — will do nothing to persuade those who have long abandoned hope for this team or program.

For Florida to come back from this — in this year or in the future — under White, at least with most fans, wins of significance are going to have to happen, and probably soon.

Florida has a chance at one of those on Saturday, as Auburn visits the O’Connell Center to face what should be a desperate bunch of Gators. And in years past, such a game would naturally draw the most raucous crowd of the year.

But the lack of faith many or most Florida fans have in this team staging such an upset threatens to be partly a self-fulfilling prophecy if the Gators end up playing before less than a full-bore crowd — and yet, who can blame fans that expect excellence for deciding this team isn’t worth rewarding with their time, money, and full volume?

Such is Florida’s perilous perch within the merciless expectations game. And Florida’s own efforts are the only way it can escape from this spot — by soaring or plunging.