Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Sports

Gators need closer in NCAA Tournament

AUSTIN, Texas

3 …

The ball, and the game, is in Florida forward Erik Murphy's hands. He is in the lane, pushing against the Ole Miss Rebels. He tries a soft hook shot, but as he takes it, his body loses the battle against the Mississippi defender. The shot lands short.

2 …

Kenny Boynton, the gnat-quick guard for the Gators, moves the ball downcourt. His team trails by one point, and the clock is inside of 10 seconds. Boynton launches a 3, however, and misses.

1 …

It is late in the game against Kentucky. Down by two, Casey Prather goes to the basket for an alley-oop pass from teammate Scottie Wilbekin. The pass isn't precise, however, and no basket occurs.

And so it goes. Late game-chances come, and late-game chances go, and the Gators fall again.

Now that Florida is in the NCAA Tournament, can it find a way to squeeze out another one?

It is the most staggering statistic in the NCAAs. In games decided by double digits, the Gators are 26-1. In games decided by six points or fewer, on the other hand, they are 0-6.

How can this be? College basketball players spend lifetimes rehearsing their last-second shots, and an entire season passes by, and no one on a talented team hits any?

Now comes the NCAA Tournament, the land of the close victory, and so it is an unsettling statistic, one that cries out for big-game players and big-time plays.

If the Gators are going to advance very far, they will have to win a close game. And yet, there is no indication they can expect a different outcome.

"I don't know if we are or we're not (in any shape to make it different in the tournament)," said Florida coach Billy Donovan. "I think a lot of times it's how you want to look at things. We have beaten teams on our schedule by 20 points or more twice as many times as we've lost close games."

Donovan knows better. There is a mentality to winning close games, whether it is because of efficiency handling the ball, shooting free throws, or whether it is having a marksman who takes over games at crunch time. The Gators, in their most trying times, haven't had that.

"The baffling thing is it's been different things," Donovan said. "In the Kentucky game, the last game of the year, we couldn't make a shot. I think we had five turnovers out of 15 possessions and went 0-for-10 from the field. Against Mississippi we were 3-for-11 from the free-throw line. Turnovers have hurt us.

"I think a lot of times people want to go back and look at the last possession, but to me when you've got a 12-point lead going into the second half against Ole Miss, that wasn't an end-of-game problem. That was a coming-out-of-the-locker-room problem."

It adds up to the same thing, however. Defeat. All six games came on the road or at a neutral site. All six were against strong competition.

"I would say this," Donovan said. "I have confidence in our guys. I think they have confidence in themselves. When that situation comes up, we'll see how you respond. I never think anything that happens in the past equals your future. If we had made very game-winning shot, that doesn't mean we're going to make the next one. And if we miss every single game-winning shot, it doesn't mean we're going to miss the next one."

"I think our team has grown and matured and gotten better in some of those situations. I think we have made better decisions. I think we have executed better. We have not finished plays like we need to."

Ah, but that's the rub. Compare third-seeded Florida to Northwestern State, its 14th-seeded opponent in today's game. Northwestern State is 8-3 in games decided in the last minute, and it has won five of its past six.

Does that count for anything? Florida's players say they have worked on the late-game situations, but will there be a sliver of doubt if things move inside the final minute? And if not today, then soon?

"I wouldn't say someone has to be the step-up guy," guard Mike Rosario said. "I feel like we have to still come out aggressive in the second half and be in attack mode."

"We've worked on our mistakes and that's in the past," Boynton said. "We're in a new season."

Soon, there will be another close finish. Soon, Florida will have a fresh chance to prove that it can withstand another team's fury.

At that point, someone will have to step up, or an entire team will step out.

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