Florida falters in season finale vs. Kentucky

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Asked earlier this week to explain what bothered him most about his basketball team’s recent offensive struggles, Florida coach Billy Donovan, more than once, used two words to summarize.

Wasted possessions.

Practically on cue, Saturday’s 61-57 loss at Kentucky to end the regular season became a case study of the subject as the Gators found yet another way to fall apart late and collapse to an agonizing defeat every bit as frustrating as those at Arizona and Missouri earlier this year.

UF’s final 14 possessions: no points, five turnovers, another blown lead on the road.

What a waste.

The UK backcourt trio of Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow combined to score 42 points, but is was an equal combination of the desperate Wildcats making plays and 11th-ranked Gators failing to do so that allowed UK to pitch a shutout over the final seven and half minutes and send 24,294 at Rupp Arena celebrating a signature win for their teetering NCAA resume.

“We let it slip away again,” UF senior forward Erik Murphy said. “We have to fix this.”

It’s getting kind of late for that, what with the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments the only settings left for the season. From now on, similar meltdowns in one-and-done scenarios will be UF’s undoing. For good.

For now, 30 games into the season, the Gators have no down-to-the-wire reference points of success to buoy their confidence in the postseason.

“In these situations, someone has to step up and make a play,” junior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Someone has to make a shot.”

Up by seven points with 7:36 to play, the Gators possessed the ball 14 more times the rest of the game, missing all 11 field-goal attempts — several from 3 feet (and closer) — and turned the ball over five times.

The Wildcats (21-10, 12-6), meanwhile, weren’t razor-sharp to the finish, but they took advantage of Florida miscues (two turnovers each from Wilbekin and Mike Rosario, another from Murphy) and were good enough at the free throw line (13 of 22 for the game, 6for-10 in the final 5:32) to steal the victory.

“When you’re drowning, you’re going to die if you don’t swim, and they swam like heck the last seven minutes,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said, revisiting the “do-or-die” and “sink or swim” theme he pitched the day before. “When the life raft is over there, you have to swim to it.”

If a metaphorical life raft was within Florida’s reach those final frantic minutes, the Gators may have swam to it … but probably would have missed it.

They missed everything else when they needed just a bucket here and there.

If UF wasn’t turning it over, Gators shots were rimming out. But only when it mattered. At the point UF made back-to-back 3-point shots — the first from Murphy (17 points, 11 rebounds) at 8:27, the next from Wilbekin at 7:36 — Florida was shooting 50 percent from the floor and was 5-for-12 (41.6 percent) from the arc.

“I thought we executed really, really well,” Donovan said.

And that remained pretty much the case in the final minutes, with the exception of a couple turnovers. But Wilbekin missed a makable drive to the basket, Patric Young (10 points) missed a short jump hook, followed by a wide-open reverse layup after getting great low-post position. Then Casey Prather (4 points, 9 rebounds) got into the act, missing a 3-footer, grabbing the offensive rebound and missing the putback try.

“Open looks,” Prather said. “They just didn’t fall.”

In between, the Gators had three straight turnover possessions, including a lob alley-oop from Wilbekin-to-Prather (yes he was open) that UF’s playmaker tried to make with his left hand. It sailed out of bounds.

Who knows? The way things were going for UF, Prather may have missed the dunk.

“Those are point-blank shots,” Donovan said. “And even Boynton’s shot off to the side was a pretty decent look.”

Yes, Kenny Boynton had a 17-foot shot — not one of those shimmying, hurried 24-footers with the shot clock rolling down — to tie the game, but that one clanged the rim with 15 seconds to go, with Young batting the rebound out of bounds.

Mays’ two free throws with nine seconds to go iced the game.

“I can’t put the ball in the basket for them. I can’t,” Donovan said. “I can’t make a jump hook for them, but I can try to put them in position to be successful. There have been some times this year where I wasn’t totally happy with our execution or decision-making down the stretch … .”

This wasn’t necessarily one of those times — the Gators had shots — but the end result (loss) and the take-away (Florida collapses again) was hauntingly familiar.

“Those are shots we normally make,” Wilbekin said.

Apparently, not in a close game, not on the road and not after giving away a nice lead. In those situations, next to nothing has fallen Florida’s way.