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Florida's strengths wither into weaknesses

ARLINGTON, Texas

The deficit was down to 12 now, and the opponent was a runaway train, and the look on Billy Donovan's face was one of disbelief.

He crouched at the end of his bench, as if he could not quite comprehend what was happening in front of him. How could so many things go so wrong at once? How could his Gators have been stripped of so much on such an important night?

Nothing Donovan tried seemed to help. The Florida offense struggled as if the basketball was too big for the rim. The defense kept getting lost. The scoreboard kept tilting the wrong way. UConn was running away with this.

So Donovan did the only thing he could do.

He looked at the NCAA official near his bench, and calmly, he asked, "Could we start over?''

As it turns out, that didn't help, either. Not on this night, when all of the strengths of the Florida Gators basketball team turned into weaknesses. The No. 1 Gators, the winners of 30 straight games, the winner of the SEC, were just another basketball team.

Sure, you might have envisioned the Gators losing. But not like this. Not by 10 points after leading by 12. Not by a nightmare of a game like this one, a 63-53 victory by UConn.

Oh, the things that went wrong.

• There was Scottie Wilbekin, for instance, the SEC Player of the Year. Wilbekin hit his first two shots, but missed his next seven and went the final 29:48 without scoring. More important, he was kept out of the lane by the UConn guards, which left the Gators with no place else to look for points.

• There was the Gators' defense, which was supposed to be a difference maker. But in the second half, UConn converted 15 field goals, and 14 of those were in the paint.

• There was the Gators' long-distance shooting. Michael Frazier hit a 3-pointer 11 seconds into the game, but Florida missed its next nine attempts.

• There was Florida's lack of presence on the boards. Though UConn used a smaller lineup for most of the night, the Huskies outrebounded Florida 28-27.

• The Gators' ball protection was non-existent. For the night, Florida had only three assists and 11 turnovers.

The result was a Florida team that didn't look like itself for most of the night. And Donovan, though he might have had his finest year coaching, couldn't do anything about it. When the guards do not play well, when the defense does not hold, when the team cannot protect the ball, when the 3-point shooting has vanished, what can a coach do?

For most of the night, the Gators were scattered, and they struggled to score, and their faces were like those of students who have discovered that their midterm tests are in a foreign language. And it would have been even worse if not for the Gators' start. They jumped ahead 16-4, and they seemed to be in control. After that, however, the quickness of the UConn guards took over, and the Huskies outscored Florida 59-37.

Yeah, it was as ugly as it sounds.

"The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn't live in the lane like he had all year for us,'' Donovan said. "Every time we needed a big shot or a big play, whether against Arkansas or UCLA, he was in the lane. He couldn't get off screens.

"When you see three assists, it's a direct reflection of your guards. We would not be in this situation (the Final Four) if not for Wilbekin. You just wish he could have played a little better for us.''

The truth? Given Florida's limitations on offense, given the lack of a go-to scorer, the Gators probably squeezed the most out of this season as possible. They are not the most talented team here.

"The number one question I ask myself is did our team play as close as possible to their potential?'' Donovan said. "Maybe more so than any team I've coached based on the talent level. We played way beyond our potential as a team.

"I think we have been a team where the whole has been better than the parts. When you break us down individually, we're not the most talented group. But when you stick us together collectively, we're really good.''

Eventually, that realization will hit the Gators. They had a fine run this season. It just ended one stop short of the national final.

Yes, they shined brightly.

Now, however, it is time to turn off the lights.

Florida's strengths wither into weaknesses 04/05/14 [Last modified: Saturday, April 5, 2014 11:17pm]
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