So much for balanced scoring and solid defense. That formula, which had propelled the University of Florida basketball team to the top of the SEC, fell woefully short Tuesday night as the Missouri Tigers exposed the Gators as a team with virtually no inside presence and an inability to finish.
The result was a crushing three-point loss for the Gators, who led for most of the game until Missouri took their first lead with 2:47 remaining. The Gators, who only days ago appeared to have a lock on the SEC title, are now clinging to a one-and-a-half game lead over Alabama, with five conference games remaining before the SEC tournament.
The Gators (21-4,11-2), enter the final stretch of the regular SEC season with a myriad of concerns, not the least of which is an inconsistent inside post game. Against Missouri, Florida center Patric Young was virtually invisible offensively, scoring only two points in four field-goal attempts in his 26 minutes on the court.
Never was the lack of an inside game more apparent than in the Gators' next-to-last possession, trailing by one point with 18 seconds remaining.
The Gators never threatened to go low before senior guard Kenny Boynton launched an errant three-pointer with seven seconds remaining. Missouri's Junior Cadougan grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Florida forward Erik Murphy. Cadougan sank two free-throws, sealing the victory for Missouri, which remained undefeated at home (15-0) and improved to 8-5 in the SEC (19-7 overall).
It was an impressive turnaround for Missouri, which lost to Florida by 31 points (52-83) earlier this season in Gainesville.
The Gators' inability to finish was very reminiscent of their early season loss at Arizona, where they blew an 11-point lead with 10 minutes remaining before losing by one point, 65-64. The Gators actually led Arizona by six with 56 seconds left in the game.
The Gators have blown similar leads in their back-to-back Elite Eight losses to Louisville and Butler during the last two NCAA tournaments.
In spite of a lineup that features balanced scoring, the Florida showed once again that it lacks a prolific scorer it can turn to with the game on the line.
Compounding the Gators' problems at Missouri was poor free-throw shooting. They shot 50 percent from the free-throw line (6-12), including a stretch of five misses in a row during the second half.
Despite these obstacles, the team is still in the driver's seat for an SEC title and could secure a No. 2 seed at the NCAA tournament barring any additional setbacks.
But to do so, Gators coach Billy Donovan will have to find a way overcome a number of Achilles' heels, or the Gators could be headed for a disappointing finish. The possible return of injured forward Will Yeguete for the postseason could help, although forward Casey Prather has filled in admirably.
Florida's road to the Final Four has now detoured into the road to recovery. That journey begins Saturday night in Gainesville, when the Gators look to avenge their most lopsided loss of the season in a rematch with Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Gators 80-69 on February 5 in Fayetteville.
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