Despite the Gators’ usual offensive struggles, there was a gripping feeling of excitement throughout Florida’s slugfest of a game against the best team in the nation.
It somewhat faded at about the same time the Gators did with two minutes remaining in the game, but it left a strong sense of hope for the future of Mike White’s program.
Florida fell 58-52 to #1 Michigan State in East Lansing, and fall to 6-3 on the season, but they played with an effort and level of intensity that seemed to be missing last season and even at points of this season. No, the Gators didn’t do much offensively. But they also held their second ranked opponent to its lowest point total of the season: Michigan State’s previous season low was 71, and on Tuesday, Florida limited Miami to its season low of 66. And while the offensive numbers weren’t great (33% from the field and 55% from the free throw line) the Gators did find some production from Chris Chiozza, who hit three three pointers in the span of three minutes to keep the Spartans from pulling away. All things considered, pushing the #1 team in the nation on their home floor like that is nothing for this team to be ashamed of.
And they did it without perhaps their best player.
After picking up two quick fouls, Gators center John Egbunu was forced to the bench, where he stayed for much of the night. When he did return to the game, he promptly picked up two more fouls, and then a fifth soon after. Egbunu is one of Florida’s only real consistent scoring threats, and the Gators’ only inside presence. Without a paint presence, Florida struggled mightily last year on the boards, and on the offensive side of the ball as a whole. But this time, the rest of the Gators picked up the slack.
Despite being out rebounded 45-34 on the night, Florida stayed in the game by making shots when they absolutely had to. The aforementioned barrage from Chiozza started when Michigan State had expanded its lead to 35-27, its largest of the game, and thus threatened to blow the game open. Kasey Hill did some more questionable things, like trying to make ridiculous reverse layups, but for once he actually made several of them, including a three point play on an and-one situation. More generally, it felt like every time MSU hit a shot that would be the start of them pulling away, the Gators would answer.
And the defense. What a game this team played defensively. The Gators limited Denzel Valentine to just 17 points, and other than Bryn Forbes, no other Spartan reached double figures. Florida also held Michigan State to 36.8% shooting from the field. Call it a bad night by MSU if you’d like
But the bottom line is that the Gators lost, and we have a particularly dreadful end of game stretch of three points in the last 5:42 to sum up the team’s offensive struggles to blame for that. We’ve seen that movie before with Gator teams of the recent past, and it never gets any better no matter how many times we watch it. Like their fellow Gators across the street in the Swamp, this team plays the defense to keep themselves in the game against the nation’s best, but until they can generate enough offense, they’ll be stuck at the level they’re at right now.
Then again, championships are won in March and April, not November and December. This team still has plenty of time to grow and develop, and they seem close to where they want to be right now. Think about it: they were in a game with the best team in the country until the very end despite not having a big man. If John Egbunu doesn’t get in foul trouble and has a big game, Florida probably beats Michigan State. OK, that’s an “if” and I get that, but it shows that Florida was just one piece of the equation that they usually get away from pulling the upset.
And in the ninth game of what’s supposed to be a rebuilding year, that’s more than I could ask for.