Finally, a crunch time win on a true road game. And not just any road game, either.
The last time Arkansas lost a game in Bud Walton Arena was on November 30, 2012. That was to a sixth ranked Syracuse team that made it all the way to the Final Four before losing a close game to Michigan. Since then, Arkansas had won 23 games in a row on their home court, including a deceivingly close 80-69 win over Florida on a perfect storm kind of night last year.
But that all came to an end today, as Florida, minus leading scorer Casey Prather and with their entire lineup in flux, walked into Bud Walton Arena with the memories of recent road trip-ups in their minds and last year’s debacle in this same arena in their hearts and walked out with a hard fought, 84-82 victory over the Razorbacks. The victory was due in large part to Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier, who combined to score 37 points, including 7 threes, to stave off every Arkansas attempt to pull away throughout the afternoon. Without them, Florida would have been out of this game by halftime.
Despite the hot shooting by Doe-Doe and Frazier, Arkansas appeared to pull away for good with 4:43 to go when Patric Young fouled Coty Clark, who made one of two free throws to extend Arkansas’s lead to 64-57, matching their largest of the day. Plus, with all the recent late game heartbreakers on the road, Gator fans couldn’t have been feeling too good about Florida’s chances down 7 with less than five minutes to go.
But then Kasey Hill fed Patric Young on a dunk to start a 7-0 run, which Frazier capped off with a huge three with 1:51 remaining. Arkansas’s Rashad Madden (who finished with a game-high 23) answered with a bucket to put Arkansas back up, 66-64 with 1:37 to go, and Florida couldn’t score. Luckily, neither could Arkansas, so Florida got another chance, which Hill promptly wasted by turning it over on a silly travel. Florida then had to foul, which they did to Alandise Harris, giving him a one-and-one. Harris missed the front end, so Florida got one final shot at sending the game to overtime.
This is where I would like to point out one big thing: what Florida did next was simply not good basketball. It turned out OK this time because Scottie Wilbekin has a world of talent and bullish confidence, but it may not work out so well come March Madness. In any case, he proceeded to hold the ball, draining nearly the entire clock before finally making his move and hitting a floater to tie it with 2 seconds left. I would have rather seen him do one of two things: 1) make his move about a second and a half earlier to give Florida a chance at a rebound in the event that he miss the shot, or 2) swing the ball around and see if he could find an opening inside for an easy dunk by one of the big guys (in this case, Young or Finney-Smith).
But in any event, that bucket sent the game into OT. Wilbekin must have decided that one clutch shot deserves another, because he simply exploded in the extra session, scoring 9 points in 4 minutes, including a three pointer to kick-start the Gators in the overtime, and sank six out of eight from the free throw line. The last two gave Florida an insurmountable 84-79 lead with 6 seconds to go after Harris missed a runner that would have cut it to 1.
I could bitch and moan about the two misses by Scottie, along with single misses by Finney-Smith and Frazier, but I’m not going to because Florida was really, really good from the line in retrospect. They shot 25-34, which isn’t fantastic, but it’s certainly good enough to not consider the foul line a liability assuming Florida can maintain that 73.5 percentage throughout the season. Which I know isn’t likely, given the fact that Patric Young and Will Yeguette, bless their souls (and for all they do well, I may add), are only slightly better at this than Shaquille O’Neil was in his college days at LSU, but if Florida can stay above 70% as a team, I’m really fine with it.
That’s one thing I took away from this game. There’s another thing that’s even more important that I came away with that I’m sure some of y’all did too. I mentioned this in the very first sentence of the recap, but it’s worth mentioning again.
Last year, the Gators were 0-6 in games decided by single digits, and all six of them were played outside the state of Florida. This year, UF came into the game 5-2 in such games, but the two losses were on the road. Finally, FINALLY, Florida got that big road win over an Arkansas team that isn’t half bad in general, and pretty damned good at home. Arkansas is 11-4 with this loss, and with an entire SEC season ahead of them, appear to be in good shape for the NCAA Tournament if they don’t lose at home again and if they can win some road games (and with teams like Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Miss. St. and Vandy as their road opponents, it’s not so farfetched that they can get a good road record if they play better than they did against Texas A&M in College Station).
The best part about this win, at least to me, is that Florida already has a large enough collection of legitimate wins that Florida fans can sit back on their couches and debate which one was the best. Kansas and Memphis stick out because of the name brands, but this one has to be up there too because of the fact that Florida just smashed the Hogs’ aura of invincibility on their home court. And getting some revenge for last year’s beatdown on this same floor has to feel good, too. This is a luxury fans didn’t have last year, the same way this win will instill the mental toughness in the players that the past three Elite Eight teams didn’t have.
Maybe that’s a sign, though. Maybe this team wants to be more than just Elite. Maybe gutting out an overtime win on the road to the same team that clobbered them on this court last year is something these players will use to elevate themselves come March, to say to themselves, “NO. This year is different. We GOT that tough win at Arkansas that we DIDN’T GET last year”. And maybe, just maybe, that will lead to an opportunity to do something no current player has ever done in the NCAA Tournament: cut down the nets.
That would be a pretty good way to wrap up the recap, but instead, I’m going to finish with a little self (well, site) promotion- we’re ramping up our coverage of everything Gators, including a new writer, several new segments and two huge surprises that I’ve been working on for weeks that will be announced very soon. Hint: if you’ve followed me from Alligator Army, and from the original incarnation of IAKOW, you may have an idea of what’s coming. So keep your eyes peeled for some really awesome stuff that I can promise you, with my hand on a Bible, you won’t get anywhere else.