It was just another typical day in the O’Dome. Florida was crushing an inferior opponent, and appeared to be very much on their way to their 34th consecutive home victory.
Then along came Angel Rodriguez, who exploded for 22 seconds half points. And in a flash, the seemingly comfortable 54-40 lead the Gators had built over Miami was gone- just like the Gators’ aura of invincibility at home.
You’re damned right that sounds familiar. The Gators made this a habit two years ago. Going up by double digits and then blowing it in the end was the trademark of the 2012-13 Florida team. Big leads against Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky and Mississippi wasted, and a disappointed locker room instead of the joyous one the players unanimously but prematurely expected to enter. Defensive collapses. Going cold and faltering down the stretch on offense. We’ve seen it all before, and it never fails to frustrate me to no end. Giving up 48 points in the second half isn’t going to win many games, bottom line.
Part of was just a good player getting really hot at the right time, granted. Kansas State transfer Angel Rodriguez simply couldn’t be stopped. He hit several key threes, some of which came with a defender right in his face, to pull Miami back into it… and for that you just have to shake his hand and say “good game”. Not every team is going to shoot 50% from three point range, including 70% in the second half. Rodriguez and the Hurricanes just couldn’t miss.
But Rodriguez also wouldn’t have won the game for the Canes without the help he got from Kasey Hill, who committed two incredibly foolish fouls that should have never been committed. On one, he fouled Rodriguez shooting an off balance three, and on the other, he fouled a dribbling Rodriguez 40 feet away from the hoop. Those are the fouls that Billy Donovan will not tolerate.
So combine all of that, and this one stings. Badly. Florida seems to be cursed against Miami in recent years, having lost in football last year and now in basketball at home, where the Gators never lose. We just can’t ever get that sweep of our two in-state rivals, something we haven’t done in basketball since 2005-06. So yes, I’m extremely irritated by the loss. I’m frustrated.
But at the same time, the consequences of losing this game are minimal. Florida was playing without Dorian Finney-Smith, Chris Walker and Alex Murphy. That’s two starters the Gators were missing, and the third- Murphy- will at the very least get some significant playing time. And go look at the Gators’ upcoming schedule: with the Battle 4 Atlantis (in which the Gators will play Georgetown, either UAB or Wisconsin, and either UNC/UCLA/Butler/Oklahoma), road trips to Kansas and Florida State, a rematch with UConn, and two games against Kentucky give Florida plenty of opportunities to bolster their resume.
The worst part about this loss is the simple irritation that comes with it. We don’t get to claim that we’re “state champions”. We cede some bragging rights to a team that we own 45-23, five Final Fours to none and two national championships to none. And none doesn’t even come close to describing Miami’s historical futility on the hardwood.
Of course, there’s a lot of work to do. But Billy Donovan has proven to be more than capable of getting his team to do that work in the past, and while this is far from his best team, even once we get Walker, Murphy and Finney-Smith back, I’m confident that he’ll turn this team into a much better one than the team we saw tonight.
I’ll leave you with this. Florida has now lost the second game of its season in four of the last five years. And as we all know, the Gators have gone to the Elite Eight in each of the last four seasons. That’s how much this game matters in the long run.