TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Florida had a signature road win in its grasp, leading by six points with a minute left.
Instead, the Gators left the desert with a disheartening loss.
Mark Lyons scored on a contested layups with 7 seconds left and No. 5 Florida blew a six-point lead in the final 56 seconds to lose 65-64 to eighth-ranked Arizona on Saturday night.
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“I think we outplayed them most of the game, but that doesn’t matter,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “It’s a 40-minute game and they outplayed us at the end, when it mattered most.”
It happened twice for Arizona teams on Saturday.
Arizona’s football team got things started by scoring two touchdowns in the final 46 seconds to beat Nevada 49-48 in the New Mexico Bowl.
The basketball team looked as though it had no shot of adding to the occasion, struggling against Florida’s mix of zone and man defenses to fall behind by 11 points in the second half.
The Wildcats (8-0) still appeared to be in trouble heading into the final minute, trailing 64-58.
That all changed in a hurry.
Arizona cut the lead to four by hitting two free throws and the Wildcats forced a turnover on an inbounds play, setting up a layup by Solomon Hill. The Wildcats used their press to create another turnover and Grant Jerrett hit one of two free throws to make it 64-63.
Arizona fouled Kenny Boynton with 21 seconds left, but the 90 percent free throw shooter missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and Arizona grabbed the rebound.
Scrambling to get a final play set up, Lyons saw that Patric Young, Florida’s 6-foot-9 center, was guarding him and put his head down toward the basket. Leaning away from the defense and flipping the ball with his right hand, Lyons sent the ball high off the glass and into the basket, setting off a deafening roar from the crowd inside the McKale Center.
Florida (7-1) botched its final possession, fumbling the ball away before taking a wild 3-pointer, sending Arizona’s players rushing onto the floor, along with a handful of students, and coach Sean Miller into the arms of athletic director Greg Byrne.
Hill had 18 points, Nick Johnson added 15 and Lyons 14 to give Arizona its best start since opening the 1998-99 season with eight straight wins.
“We’re the real deal,” Johnson said. “Everybody said something about our schedule before this and this was the opportunity to prove ourselves in front of the nation.”
Florida fell flat with a chance to pull out a win in one of college basketball’s toughest road venues.
Dominating defensively for much of the first half, the Gators allowed Arizona to hit 11 of 22 shots in the second and gave up the game’s final seven points.
Florida hit 12 of its 19 shots in the second half, including 6 of 9 from 3-point range, yet couldn’t score over the game’s final 2:35.
And when it counted most, the Gators couldn’t hold onto the ball or make a free throw, leaving the desert stunned instead of delighted.
Mike Rosario led Florida with 16 points and Erik Murphy added 15.
“We couldn’t quite handle the pressure and I think that’s what cost us the game,” said Young, who had eight points.
The Gators and Wildcats cruised through their early schedules to set up the McKale Center’s first matchup between top 10 teams since 2004.
Putting the Gators and Wildcats together on the same court set up one of college basketball’s best nonconference games of the season, one that had the McKale Center rocking despite the late start and school out for the semester.
It was quite a show.
Florida went up by 11 in the first half behind its defense, holding Arizona without a field goal for 7 minutes. The Wildcats rallied, pulling within 32-29 at halftime after Johnson hit consecutive 3-pointers and Hill turned a steal into a fast-break layup in the closing seconds.
The Gators started to pull away again in the second half, making seven of their first eight shots to go up 49-39 on Scottie Wilbekin’s 3-pointer from the wing.
Arizona chipped the lead down to 61-58 on long 3-pointers from Johnson and Lyons from the same spot, but Florida extended the lead back to six on a 3-pointer by Wilbekin with 2 minutes left.
Even when the Gators couldn’t get any shots to fall, they still seemed to be in control heading into the final minute.
Then came a turnover, another, a missed free throw. In 56 seconds, Arizona had turned what appeared to be a disheartening loss into a nice capper for an impressive day in Arizona athletics.
“It’s a great day for us,” Hill said. “Both teams looked ugly at times, we both made our share of bad plays, but we kept staying in there and fighting.”