For the fifth straight game, a slow start forced the Florida Gators to rally with ferocity — and for the fifth straight game, they did.
Two of those games, though, have been against a Texas A&M team tougher than titanium, and Wednesday night’s game going the Aggies’ way by a 54-52 count is yet more evidence that Florida’s formula is only so potent.
The Gators tested the limits of that framework in this one, too, making just two of their 26 first-half shots — an atrocious eight percent — and going into halftime down 23-12 as a result. And that half included a three in the game’s first segment, objectively a better start than the 11-0 and 7-0 beginnings Florida allowed last week in wins over LSU and Missouri.
Turns out that there are things worse than being blanked in the early goings; spending almost 13 full minutes failing to convert a field goal, as the Gators did in the first half, is absolutely one of them.
But thanks to some resilient defense and frequent trips to the foul line, their halftime deficit of 11 just mirrored the one faced in Gainesville against the same foe two weeks ago. And, just as they did then, the Gators shrank that lead soon after half, using a 7-2 run to knife back to within five and then repeatedly responding to A&M stretching its advantage to two possessions with points to stay one trip away from a tie.
Finding new and better ways to involve Colin Castleton than simply entering the ball to him in the post — where A&M’s aggressive double-teaming suffocated Florida’s offense in the first half made a world of difference. Castleton scored just one point in the first 20 minutes, but finished with a team-best 14 points, and added 13 rebounds and six blocks. Moreover, his ability to drive into the paint and dish out of it gave Florida open looks elsewhere, and the Gators were a far more respectable 14-for-35 from the field after halftime and scored 40 on the Aggies after halftime.
The non-Castleton scoring was well-balanced, as seven Gators managed six or more points. But in a game that came down to a single possession, they needed more threes than the admittedly timely six they made; Myreon Jones made three, but needed 10 tries to get them, and bricked two attempts that would have drawn Florida within a single point of A&M in the final minute before Riley Kugel drained a third try on the possession after a pair of offensive rebounds.
The Gators fought to the end regardless of that poor shooting. When Florida missed and then turned it over for a run-out dunk with seconds to play, Jones answering with a leaning pull-up from nearly 30 feet and some smart defending on A&M’s next inbounds attempt gave the Gators 2.5 seconds to win or force overtime.
But A&M’s own superb defense turned a play intended for Castleton to a twisting shot by Jones that had no real chance of going in — and gave the Aggies a fourth consecutive win over Florida by three or fewer points since February 15, 2022.
Florida has hung tough in all of those games, obviously, making comebacks despite trailing by double digits in the first half of all of them.
Alas, hanging tough isn’t being tough enough to win.