This looked like the typical 2014-15 Gator basketball team. A sluggish, unappealing game to watch, the Gators gradually build a late lead only to blow it in the final seconds. Yet it was Florida- yes Florida- who came out with the win.
Down 56-55 with seconds to go, Chris Chiozza drove the lane and missed. But Michael Frazier pulled down the rebound, and went up with it one last time- and got hacked. Then Frazier, the only returning starter from last year’s Final Four team, walked to the line, calmly made the two free throws that won the game for the Gators and restored the faintest glimmer of hope into the team’s NCAA Tournament chances- and then anything but calmly sprinted off to celebrate a solid win with his teammates.
It’s just business as usual for Frazier. Winning these sort of close games late is what he’s used to doing, having played key roles in several wins like this a year ago.
But it’s an entirely new feeling for this team as a whole to win close games late, and now they’ve done it twice in succession- first against a decent Alabama team in Tuscaloosa and now against an Arkansas team that’s been ranked as high as 19 earlier in the year. And both wins have come after blowing large leads relatively late in the game, which as frustrating as that is on one level, speaks volumes of this team’s resiliency and ability to finish- especially after having failed to do so on big stages against Miami, Georgetown, Kansas, FSU, Connecticut and Mississippi. And yes, blowing a 53-44 lead with six minutes to go following a Dorian Finney-Smith three and allowing Arkansas to launch a 12-2 run from that point on is certainly concerning, and quite reminiscent of leads blown against Miami, Kansas and UConn. But this time, it turned out OK… because the Gators finished the game. And boy, did pick a good time to finish a game.
This win against Arkansas is easily their best of the season. Florida locked down on defense, holding an Arkansas team that averages north of 80 points a game to 56, and limiting Michael Qualls (who averages 16.5 points a game) to just five. In fact, other than Bobby Portis and Anton Beard (who combined for 31 points), nobody on Arkansas scored more than five. You want to look for some positives in this team? That’s a damned good one.
More importantly, this win restored a pulse to the Gators’ resume. They’re not about to jump out of their hospital bed like a 12 year old on a sugar rush, but there’s a pulse now that didn’t exist a week ago, or even yesterday. The Razorbacks sit at 16-5, which is certainly NCAA Tournament material even though they haven’t beaten anybody particularly good. The Gators have now forced a massive logjam at the middle-top of the SEC with a 5-3 conference record. Up to six teams could share that 5-3 record at the end of today, and because this is a conference that’s going to get somewhere between three to five teams into the Big Dance, it makes for an interesting final ten games of the regular season. And thanks to their last two wins, the Gators will get to play a meaningful part in it.
But I won’t go so far as to say that this team is back on track. I mean, can you really say a team is turning the corner when they shoot a ghastly 18-52 from the field (34.6%) and blow a nine point lead with six minutes left? Because, you know, those are the same issues that have been plaguing the Gators all year? One bucket from the field (a dunk by Jon Horford) in the final 6:24 of a basketball game is going to lose you more games than it will win you, and trust me, though the Gators may have gotten away with late game droughts twice in succession, they won’t be able to much longer, particularly not against the teams they’ll need to beat if they want to make the NCAA Tournament.
No, there’s a lot of work to do in order to be playing meaningful basketball in March. But considering that this team was clinically dead 24 hours ago, I’ll settle for having a pulse today.