Another night of hard play and hard luck for the 2021-22 Florida Gators men’s basketball team finally had a season that has teetered toward the abyss for months on end looking like it was down to its last breaths.
Try as they might, the Gators could not stay in front of Vanderbilt — most specifically, Scotty Pippen, Jr. — and could not keep up with the Commodores’ rain of threes. The Gators answered a 17-2 run by Vanderbilt midway through the second half with their own 14-3 push — only for Pippen and Trey Thomas (5-for-7 from distance on the night) to hit consecutive threes that left Florida down eight with just under four minutes to play.
So the Gators chose to come from behind, instead — and it worked.
In those final four minutes, impressive defense forced three Vandy turnovers, five different Gators scored, and Phlandrous Fleming had an incredible final minute — chasing down a Pippen breakaway for a game-saving block, dishing a pass to Tuongthach Gatkek to get the Gators within a point, and making the game-winning three — to secure a must-win contest for Florida.
The game ended at 82-78 — after Pippen was fouled on a final possession, but missed a free throw that Colin Castleton rebounded, leading to Castleton making two freebies to change the margin of victory — but Fleming’s play, on a 16-point, six-assist, four-rebound night, was just the last bit of dogged resilience by the Gators.
Vanderbilt hit 15 of 29 threes? Fine: The Commodores wouldn’t hit one in the final 3:50, when Florida made its push, and got just one basket from Pippen, whose 29 points and five assists were a fantastic flourish in what was almost certainly his last game before a Memorial Gym crowd.
Those threes came on all manner of difficult shots, and with Vandy also hitting improbably difficult late-clock runners and floaters? Okay: Florida would simply get six points each from Gatkek and Niels Lane, surviving its second consecutive game without Anthony Duruji with four starters mustering double-figure points.
Castleton went 6-for-15 from the field, needing to get seven of his 19 points from the line while working through all sorts of Vanderbilt physicality? No matter: Florida hit 10 threes of its own, with Fleming, Tyree Appleby, and Myreon Jones all connecting on more than one.
The Gators had played a game like this before this year — their one against Maryland, in which the Terrapins’ guards made seemingly everything, but only ended up with eight made threes — and lost at the end because they couldn’t match a hot team on a hot night.
In this game, with a loss likely to make their NCAA Tournament hopes as slim as could be, they didn’t just match but surpassed Vanderbilt’s best game on the Commodores’ home floor — winning for a fourth consecutive time in Nashville for the first time in program history.
And it still won’t “matter,” in the sense of guaranteeing an NCAA Tournament berth, if Florida can’t come up with some combination of wins on Saturday against Kentucky and in the SEC Tournament.
If there is still glory to be gained before March Madness, though, perhaps from simply digging deep to summon efforts that seem unimaginable and steal victory, the Gators have surely obtained some of it of late.