When Florida’s Colin Castleton drew a fourth foul on do-everything Arkansas big man Jaylin Williams with just under eight minutes to play on Tuesday night in Gainesville, the Gators led the Razorbacks by five; Castleton converting the and-one opportunity immediately afterward gave the Gators their first six-point lead in the game since a flurry of threes in the early goings, and capped an 8-2 run.
And with their season on the line, Florida could do little to stop the Hogs from answering both that run and the bell.
Arkansas immediately swiped back the lead with a 7-0 run over their next three offensive possessions, stole it back after two more Castleton points at the line briefly put Florida in front moments later, and used big shots to defend it when the Gators threatened down the stretch, with a J.D. Notae three with 1:10 to play putting the Hogs up multiple possessions for good and allowing them to hang on for an 82-74 win — their first in Gainesville since 1995.
Florida’s offense did more than enough for this team to win on most nights, too. Torrid shooting early on, when the Gators made six threes en route to 12-6 and 23-20 leads, would fade, but Tyree Appleby danced and drove his way to 19 points and four assists against his home-state team, and Castleton had one of his best nights in Florida livery, pounding away inside for a career-high 29 points and outplaying Williams when matched up on him at the offensive end.
But Williams was fantastic against Florida drivers, drawing several offensive fouls, and also clogged passing lanes as a roll defender and scored at multiple levels in a 15-point, 10-rebound performance. And Arkansas had four players grab six rebounds each, while Florida didn’t have a single player do so, symptomatic of a game in which 50-50 balls went the way of the Hogs while 50-50 calls often favored Florida.
Plus, despite a Notae technical foul after a late run-out dunk gifting Florida two free throws, and the Hogs still shot two more free throws than Florida did, and Williams managed to finish the game without fouling out despite playing with two fouls down the stretch and feeding Castleton a diet of elbows to the back while defending him all night.
Against Auburn, Florida made some of its own breaks, but didn’t need that many, thanks to off nights from Tigers not named Jabari Smith. Arkansas, which committed just five turnovers, shot 46 percent from the field, made seven of 18 threes, and drained 17 of 20 free throws, simply didn’t grant the Gators that sort of margin for error in this game — and now Florida is back to not having any when it comes to NCAA Tournament hopes.
With a win over the Hogs, Florida would’ve probably satisfied any Selection Committee members looking for a quantity of big wins; now, the Gators have the Auburn win, their shocking comeback against Ohio State back in November, and nothing else, and their only scheduled chance to get another big one is on Senior Day against fearsome Kentucky.
And Florida now absolutely cannot afford to drop the games that would even season series with Georgia and Vanderbilt in the interim, making those both treacherous roadies.
But the most likely finish to the regular season probably doesn’t get Florida all the way into March Madness, either, and will likely force the Gators to win one — and maybe two — games in the SEC Tournament to make a compelling case for inclusion. And anything worse than that 2-1 mark is probably the kiss of death.
And at this point, Florida finding another gear to finish its year would be nice, but simply isn’t realistic. The Gators just watched another team find such a level of play — and they could not match it, hard as they tried.