If Florida was going to have legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes after going one-for-four against a gauntlet of Final Four aspirants — and, uh, Kentucky — over the last fortnight, the theory went, the Gators were going to have to take care of business against teams like the Vanderbilt squad that came to Gainesville on Saturday.
Instead, Florida got taken care of — and its plans for March might be settled, too.
Big man Liam Robbins scored a career-high 32 points, gobbled up 10 rebounds, and played excellent defense on Colin Castleton in Vandy’s 88-80 win over the Gators. But maybe most importantly, he joined in on the Commodores’ barrage from behind the arc, sinking three of his four threes and aiding considerably in a 12-for-23 performance by the visitors.
Florida, on the other hand, might have only had a good day shooting if shooting itself in the foot counted. The Gators went 2-for-20 from distance, and both threes came from Kowacie Reeves, whose 14 points and poster dunk still came with a 2-for-8 rate beyond the line.
Every other Gator to play in the game — eight of ‘em — also took and missed at least one three, though. And the shot distribution was, charitably, counter-productive: Team-leading shooter Will Richard, the only Gator making more than a third of his threes on the season, hoisted just one, a badly airballed attempt late in the second half, but Riley Kugel, who made eight of his 10 two-pointers, missed four, and both Castleton and Jason Jitoboh heaved up misses.
Florida still managed to stay in a game in which the differential of points scored on threes was a staggering +30 for Vanderbilt by bruising the Commodores inside, with Castleton doing yeoman’s work against the towering Robbins and getting a 25-point, 11-rebound, two-assist, two-block night out of it — his third straight game of at least 25 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and two blocks, mind — and four Gators besides Castleton shooting 75 percent or better on twos.
But Vanderbilt built an early lead with threes during a bizarrely long opening sequence without a stoppage — one that lasted more than the first 10 minutes of the game clock — and Florida reclaiming that lead multiple times did not lead to the Gators building a substantial edge of their own.
The primary reason for that might have been a 14-for-23 night at the line, which was most acutely felt midway through the second half, when Richard missed free throws that would have put Florida up five or six points, followed by Vanderbilt immediately slicing that lead back to one with a three.
After it lost that lead, though, Florida couldn’t pressure Vandy down the stretch, going just over six minutes without a made field goal and going from down one to down 10 as a result.
Florida’s NCAA Tournament case depended on not having many — if any — bad losses like this one prior to today, with one superb win over Tennessee just about cancelling out the Gators’ struggles to get wins against teams as good or better than they are. And while Vanderbilt has bolstered its case substantially this week, combining its own coup of a win over the Vols with this road win at Florida for arguably the best week of Jerry Stackhouse’s tenure, this defeat is now an albatross for a team that desperately needs ballast.
If the Gators can finish their SEC slate with a slew of wins over mostly “lesser” teams, they might still have a chance to dance come March.
This day provided all the proof anyone would need to believe that they will not.