GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida coach Billy Donovan calls it “media drama.”
Everyone else, including his players, see the 14th-ranked Gators as having something to prove as they head onto college basketball’s biggest stage.
Florida, the No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament’s South Region, can’t seem to close out close games. The Gators are 0-6 in games decided by six points or less this season, including 0-4 the last month.
The list includes three losses in which Florida led by at least seven points in the second half.
Missouri overcame a 13-point deficit to beat the Gators 63-60 on Feb. 19. Kentucky held Florida scoreless for the final 7-plus minutes en route to a 61-57 victory on March 9. And Mississippi battled back from 12-point halftime hole to knock off Donovan’s team in the Southeastern Conference championship game Sunday in Nashville, Tenn.
And those are just the recent ones. The Gators (26-7) had another late collapse at Arizona in mid-December. They also ended the last two seasons in similar fashion: blowing double-digit leads against Louisville (2012) and Butler (2011) in NCAA tournament regional finals.
“There’s plenty of games where we’ve had reasonable leads and there just seemed like a point where we went dead or allowed the team to come back with no resistance,” center Patric Young said Monday. “It is fair to say that. It’s probably a problem with the team, something that we’ve been trying to get fixed. I’ll say we did a better job last game of fighting and trying to persevere through. We just didn’t finish plays.”
Donovan understands the perception, but he insists his team has created its own problems with poor defense and costly turnovers down the stretch. He believes his guys are confident and taking good shots with the game on the line.
Nonetheless, the misses are adding up as Florida prepares to play 14th-seeded Northwestern State in the opening round Friday in Austin, Texas.
“We need someone to step up and be a leader,” Young said. “Just to make sure that when we come back out that we’re focused on doing our jobs, making sure that we’re locked in and we’re not going to give in no matter what the other team throws at us, that we’re still going to keep fighting and doing our jobs defensively.”
It would be easy to argue that Florida shouldn’t have these issues.
After all, Donovan has three seniors and two juniors in his starting lineup — including guards Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario. Boynton has started 138 games over the last four years, including nine in the NCAA tournament, and probably should be the team’s go-to guy.
But Boynton is averaging a career-low 12.3 points this season and shooting just 27 percent from 3-point range over the last nine games.
As for his teammates? Well, it’s tough to hand the ball to Young or forward Will Yeguete in crunch time since neither is a good free-throw shooter. Young, hitting 49.6 percent this season, missed 11 of 17 from the charity stripe in the SEC tournament. Yeguete has been slightly better, connecting on 58.8 percent.
And Donovan doesn’t seem to trust point guard Scottie Wilbekin or Rosario. They ranked first and second on the team in turnovers, and although both can create their own shots, Donovan acknowledges that they usually won’t be good ones.
That leaves Murphy, who got the call against the Rebels. Trailing 65-63 with about 20 seconds to play, Donovan drew up a play for Murphy in the post. He missed, and the SEC regular-season champs failed to claim the tournament title.
“If that happens again, I have to try to make the play again, whether it’s for me or one of my teammates,” said Murphy, a first-team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press. “I want to be in that situation, and it’s something I’ve accepted.”
Still, tightening up in the next tight game could happen. And if the Gators don’t find a way to win a close one, a team with its sights set on making the Final Four could be exciting the NCAA tournament earlier than expected.
“Yeah, it’s going to happen again,” Donovan said. “They’re going to have to make the plays they need to make. Do I see our guys petrified? Scared? Uptight? Nervous? No. They have to make those plays.”
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