Florida’s toughness called into question after loss to pesky UConn

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Billy Donovan said earlier this week that the way walk-on senior Jake Kurtz bounced back from that knee-capping play at Florida State and went diligently back to work at practice, the coach hoped, would serve as a lesson in mental toughness that would rub off on his Florida Gators.

Clearly, it didn’t.

Maybe what Connecticut did to them Saturday will, instead.

The Huskies rolled out the same junkyard-dog mentality they slapped on the Gators at the Final Four nine months ago, coming from 11 points down with 11 minutes to go and handing the UF a 63-59 loss in front of 11,101 at the O’Connell Center.

UConn senior guard Ryan Boatright, who was questionable for the game coming in due to a severe thigh contusion, played through the pain and scored 14 points, grabbed six rebounds and six assists. He was perfect on four free throws in the final 31 seconds, which made what Florida did at the line — an abysmal 8-for-18 (that’s 40 percent) — all the more glaring.

UF (7-6) now heads into Southeastern Conference play next week with its most non-league losses since dropping six early in the 1974-75 season. And three of those six — against Miami, Kansas and now UConn — came after blowing double-digit second-half leads.

This is the latest.

"There’s a mental, competitive spirit you have to have … and we don’t have it," Donovan said. "We play when it’s easy, not when it’s hard."

Florida vs. Connecticut

The easiest it looked was when junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith (19 points, 5 rebounds) drained a 3-point shot with just over 11 minutes left to push the Gators in front 52-41. About 40 seconds later, Huskies guard Omar Calhoun (12 points) hit the first of five UConn 3-pointers over the next five minutes, with Rodney Purvis (11 points) sinking three of them, and it was disaster from there.

"We didn’t rotate defensively and get to their shooters fast enough," UF freshman guard Chris Chiozza said. "We got lackadaisical on defense a couple times and they made us pay."

Almost every time.

Meanwhile, there were no such lapses of defense on the other end, as UConn forced UF to miss its next eight field-goal attempts and turned the ball over twice, allowing the Huskies (7-5) to take off on a 17-2 tear. The Gators had their chances along the way. Unfortunately, too many of those chances came at the free-throw line, where they went 1-for-6 in the final 3:51.

The most egregious of the misses came from forward Alex Murphy, who stepped up with his team down 57-56 with 38.1 seconds left and clanged both off the back of the rim.

At the other end, Boatright sank a pair for a three-point lead.

Then UF center Chris Walker was fouled fighting for a rebound. To the line he went, Gators down by three, with 20.4 to go. Bonk and bonk.

At the other end, Boatright again was true on two. Remember, this was the same guy who teamed with Shabazz Napier to basically vaporize Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier from the floor during the NCAA semifinal last April. He has an edge. The kind the Gators do not.

"Think Boatright was missing free throws?" Donovan asked rhetorically, again trying to push his message of mental toughness.

Or lack thereof.

"They made the plays, we didn’t," said Finney-Smith, the only UF player who finished in double figures. "When things get tough and adversity hits, we need to find ways to make stops."

And baskets.

The Gators shot 52 percent in the first half, but 32 in the second, and were 2-for-8 from the free-throw line after intermission. And then there were those missed defensive assignments and UConn’s offensive rebounding (and want-to on 50-50 balls) as it got late.

The Huskies got locked in, nasty and took over the game. Five of their last six field goals were 3-balls and they went 9-for-9 in the second half from the line.

That’s how to close a game.

"I love our guys’ heart and their desire," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "Sometimes, it’s just about what’s in your gut and there’s nothing more I can tell them to do."

The Huskies just go out and do it.

And did it to the Gators again.