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Texas A&M 83, Florida 80: Aggies break Gators’ hearts at buzzer in overtime

One last time, one last comeback, and one last near miss.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament- Florida Gators vs Texas A&M Aggies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Of course it had to end in the most painful way imaginable.

Of course Florida would trail again — early and often and by a lot — against Texas A&M, the long-limbed Aggies’ defense giving the Gators fits. Of course these Gators — the Never Anything Easy Gators, I’ve called them, but maybe the Lazarus Gators, a tag applied to a few of Mike White’s teams, or the Heart and Hustle Gators, to borrow a phrase from a local NBA squad from decades ago, would have worked — would still make a game of it, still fight into overtime from a steep deficit with a stunning comeback.

Of course it would look brightest right before the Aggies bade good night to Florida’s season of sunrises and sunsets.

With about 40 seconds left in overtime, Phlandrous Fleming appeared to make the play of the day, challenging A&M’s Tyrece Radford for an inbounds pass that went out of bounds off of Radford and initially getting possession for the Gators with a two-point lead. But an official review reversed the call on the floor and assessed a foul on Fleming, so Radford drained two free throws and tied the game.

And then Fleming, huge down the stretch in this game and scorer of 17 points on the day, fired up a three like the ones he hit to help beat Auburn and Vanderbilt — only it wedged itself in the space between backboard and rim, giving the ball back to the Aggies.

And then Hassan Diarra, a 26.5 percent three-point shooter entering Thursday, rose for his fourth attempt of the day in overtime — and, over Kowacie Reeves’ outstretched hand on a good contest, made his third, giving the Aggies an 83-80 victory in the second round of the SEC Tournament that should consign Florida to no better than the Postseason NIT.

Of course it would hurt like this.

Florida, of course, had the spirit and resilience not to quit on a game in which it trailed by 16 in each half, and by 12 with 3:17 to play. After Niels Lane spent much of the first half scoring much of his career-high 16 points, Kowacie Reeves joined him in unlikely hardcourt heroism by scoring most of his career-high 21 points as the Gators made a furious 17-5 run to close regulation, including a pair of threes — one a four-point play — in the final 40 seconds to cut the A&M lead to one and then tie the game at 70.

And Florida warding off a bucket at the end of regulation got the Gators an overtime period without A&M’s Quenton Jackson on the floor.

But while Reeves staked Florida to its first lead with a three-point play early in overtime, a three from Radford and a handful of foul calls on the Gators — who were whistled for 21 fouls on the day after being called for zero in the first half, and who combined with the Aggies to shoot 61 free throws in the game after shooting just five in the first half, both generally signs of a well- and evenly-officiated game maddeningly inconsistent pattern of officiating from the refs — helped the Aggies take a three-point lead with just over two minutes to play.

Still more fight was in these Gators. Colin Castleton, frustrated by double teams all day, got a layup to go, and then Fleming added an and-one basket and a tough jumper to put the Gators up 80-78. Good defense from Castleton, who swatted a Henry Coleman III try at the rim, set up the Aggies to have to inbound down two — and then came the call reversed, and the rest of the game going A&M’s way.

For Florida, this is truly the end of any NCAA Tournament hopes: The bubble was too wide and their perch on it too tenuous to have any realistic right to believe in a berth coming with a loss today. The NIT should come calling, if the Gators are interested — and with Lane and Reeves developing with playing time, they should be, even if a proud bunch of seniors of both the home-grown and transfer-imported varieties might just be done with what has been an emotional and exhausting season.

But with fans’ belief in the program as led by White dwindling — fairly or not — and the possibility of a side-door exit available in theory, there’s a chance this was also the end of an era marked by often unfathomable effort and an uncomfortable number of valiant losses.

Where the Gators go from here is very much up in the air.

For this year, at least, it won’t be dancing.