TUCSON – No. 5 Florida led No. 8 Arizona 64-58 with 1:17 remaining, and it looked like the 14,000-plus Wildcat fans inside McKale Center would not go home with a win to cap a day that began with their football team’s comeback at the New Mexico Bowl.
Both teams had other plans however, as the Gators were reckless with the basketball late (three turnovers in their final five possessions) and the Wildcats was more than willing to take advantage.
Arizona scored the final seven points of the game, with Mark Lyons’ driving basket with seven seconds remaining proving to be the difference in the 65-64 victory.
Florida entered Saturday’s contest averaging just 12.4 turnovers per game, with their two worst performances in that category coming in decisive victories over Wisconsin (20 turnovers) and Florida State (15). Florida finished tonight’s game with 14 turnovers, but many of their miscues coming in the latter stages of each half.
Florida controlled much of the contest but the moments that were the exception proved to be costly, as Arizona outscored the Gators 15-0 when looking at solely the final 1:20 of each half.
“For me it’s a tale of two halves, closing out the halves so to speak,” said Florida head coach Billy Donovan. “I told the guys at halftime, ‘if you’re going to lose the game, make them beat us’ and I felt we beat ourselves tonight, especially in the first half.
“We didn’t close out very well, we didn’t execute well enough. We’ve had issues with turnovers; it’s been a problem for us and it started in the Wisconsin game.
Arizona trailed 32-21 with 1:20 left in the first half, but an 8-0 run thanks to a pair of Nick Johnson three-pointers and a Solomon Hill dunk closed the gap to three at the intermission. Florida turned the ball over five times to Arizona’s eight in the first half, but the Wildcats outscored the Gators 9-8 in the points off turnovers category.
The second half proved to be more of the same for Florida, as they took control of the game only to have it slip from their grasp down the stretch. Three consecutive turnovers followed by two missed shots in the final minute plus and the Gators were on their way back to Gainesville with a tough loss.
Erik Murphy (ten points in the first half with just one turnover; six points with four turnovers in the second) struggled against Arizona’s smaller lineup in the second half, a move brought on primarily by starting center Kaleb Tarczewski’s foul trouble.
Solomon Hill led Arizona with 18 points, Johnson added 15 and Lyons 14 capped by his drive to the basket in the final seconds.
While the comeback was an impressive one for the Wildcats, who handed the Pac-12 a needed Christmas present in the form of the league’s first win over a non-conference opponent ranked in the Top 10 since 2009 (USC beat Tennessee 77-55), the biggest story will be about how Florida allowed a statement victory to slip away.
How Florida addresses its issues with turnovers and closing out halves will ultimately determine whether or not a team that’s reached the Elite 8 in each of the last two seasons can take the next step.
“What I love about this team is that we are never satisfied,” said Rosario, who finished the game with a team-high 16 points. “We have a lot of areas we can improve upon, and we just need to keep pressing through the rest of the season.”