Florida basketball score, takeaways: Gators upset at Vanderbilt in shameful finish to regular season

By OnlyGators.com Staff
March 9, 2024
Florida basketball score, takeaways: Gators upset at Vanderbilt in shameful finish to regular season

Image Credit: UAA

The Florida Gators suffered their worst loss of the 2023-24 season in unsurprising fashion, giving up a halftime lead and lead late in the second half to fall 79-78 on the road to the Vanderbilt Commodores. It was the first Quadrant 3 or 4 defeat the Gators have taken this campaign — and it came in the final regular-season game.

Head coach Todd Golden’s squad failed where it has all too frequently with turnovers and poor offensive possessions in crunch time. The loss will directly affect Florida’s seeding in the 2024 NCAA Tournament, though it will not change its spot in the 2024 SEC Tournament, which begins next week.

The Gators are now 21-10 (11-7 SEC) with a 3-3 mark in their last six games rather than a 4-1 mark in their last five, which would have been possible with a victory Saturday. Let’s take a look at what went down in Nashville, Tennessee.

It was over when … the final buzzer sounded. Florida trailed by one with 4 seconds remaining after redshirt senior forward Tyrese Samuel was called for a ghost foul while jumping straight in the air for a defensive rebound, resulting in two Vanderbilt made free throws. The Gators still led by one at that point, but junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. turned over the ensuing inbounds pass with the ‘Dores converting into a layup. UF’s final possession (with no timeouts remaining) saw the referee blow the whistle — giving VU a free look at the game’s last play — only for Clayton to dribble off his foot with no final shot attempted.

Vanderbilt used an 18-4 scoring stretch spanning halftime to turn a 12-point deficit into a 2-point lead just 5 minutes into the second half as Florida started 2 of 9 from the floor in the latter period. A 6-0 run led by some deft play from redshirt senior point guard Zyon Pullin pushed the Gators ahead by 8 points with 6 minutes remaining. The ‘Dores responded with a 9-2 stretch and ultimately tied the game with 2 minutes left before moving into the lead.

First half focus: Three Florida turnovers aided Vanderbilt in a 7-0 run that gave the hosts an early 16-14 lead, but the Gators quickly responded in kind and eventually pushed their advantage to 12 points on a trailing 3-pointer and front-facing banked layup from freshman center Alex Condon with less than 2 minutes until the break. UF did not score again, though, as the ‘Dores nearly cut their deficit in half with five straight points to trail 39-32 at halftime. Florida held a significant 18-8 paint scoring advantage with Pullin starring by hitting 4 of 5 shots for 11 points with six assists and four rebounds.

Exceptional efforts: Pullin was exceptional throughout the game scoring a team-high 20 points on 7 of 9 shooting with eight dimes and five boards; he made all five of his free throws and his only 3-pointer. Samuel was also excellent scoring 16 points on 8 of 10 shooting with four rebounds, but he did commit three turnovers. Condon posted a team-high eight boards along with 11 points on 4 of 7 shooting.

Missing in action: Clayton has been the Gators’ best offensive weapon this season, but he’s completely fell apart of late. He went 4 of 14 from the floor Saturday with three turnovers and four fouls, including multiple costly miscues in the second half. He’s made just 7 of 26 shots (26.5%) over the last two games with as many fouls (seven) and nearly as many turnovers (six) in that span. Sophomore G Riley Kugel continues to struggle with consistency; he committed four costly turnovers. Junior G Will Richard also remains inconsistent. After a bounce-back performance on Tuesday, he went 1 of 6 from the floor making him 2 of 19 (10.5%) over three of his last four games. These are supposed to be Florida’s best scorers, and they all went cold at the same time.

Odds & ends: Florida fell to 74-74 all-time against Vanderbilt with a 21-50 mark at Memorial Gymnasium … Golden is now just 1-3 against the ‘Dores across two seasons … the Gators lost for the sixth time when leading at the half (18-6) and fourth time when leading with 5 minutes left (19-4) … Florida is now 4-5 when being outrebounded … the Gators lost for just the second time this season when shooting better than 45% from the field (13-2) … Vanderbilt only shot 35.5% FG but had 20 (!) offensive rebounds and won the battle off the glass 41-35 overall … Florida’s 16 turnovers matched its fourth-most this season … four of UF’s 11 losses this season have come in alternate jerseys (1-4)

What it means: The Gators have all but lost out on a shot at a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and even a No. 6 seed is looking unlikely without a significant run in the 2024 SEC Tournament coming up next week. There was no reason for Florida to lose this game. Officiating absolutely played a role late, but UF should never have been in a position where that could have affected the outcome. Clayton remaining ice cold and Richard cooling off is a major issue, but the lack of defensive rebounding and inability to protect the ball was maddening. The Gators led for 31:08 (and only trailed for 3:16) yet lost to a team that only had three SEC wins on the season entering the game.

Instead of concluding the regular season going 4-1 in its last five games, Florida went 3-3 in its last six — all three losses coming despite holding second-half leads. This marked a Quadrant 3 loss for Florida, easily its worst of the season as the Gators entered 14-0 against Quadrants 3-4. And it came at the most inopportune time with each of its games being scrutinized more closely as the March Madness bracket gets built.

What’s next? Florida has locked up the No. 6 seed in the SEC Tournament, which will afford it a single bye before it faces either No. 11-seed Georgia or No. 14-seed Missouri in second-round action on Thursday, March 14. The event will conclude next Sunday ahead of Selection Sunday for the 2024 NCAA Tournament.

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