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3 posts from February 2018

February 24, 2018

Florida basketball edges Auburn behind clutch shooting and a lucky heave

GAINESVILLE — It was poetry.

It was the simplicity of a haiku, the elegance of a sonnet and the complexity of free verse at once. And like any brilliant piece of art, KeVaughn Allen's half-court heave moved those who experienced it beyond words. But instead of staying silent, they screamed. 

And screamed and screamed and screamed. 

Long after the Gators had left the court for halftime, they were still screaming about Allen's lucky break. About how, off an inbound pass from Chris Chiozza with under three seconds left to the break, he toed the boundary of the court, beat one defender and, like John Wayne drawing his pistol from his belt, heaved the ball from his hip.

"It looked like it was going wide left," Allen said, "but then, at the last second, it curved right." 

The ball landed about 75 feet away and splashed into the net like a missile from nowhere, nearly blowing up the O'Connell Center in the process. But as thrilling as the moment was, Florida is used to that sort of purple prose to start games. It's also used to tragedy to finish them. On Saturday, though, there was no hubris and heartbreak. Only electricity and elation. 

Led by Allen, who aside from his buzzer beater scored a game-leading 24 points, the Gators (18-11, 9-7 Southeastern Conference) snatched a 72-66 win from feisty No. 12 Auburn (24-5, 12-4 SEC) in a game that, staying on the theme of literature, climaxed in the final moments. And for the first time in three games, the climax went in Florida’s favor.

“We needed that one, didn’t we?” coach Mike White said.

Allen didn't start off like a man poised to make the shot of his life. He was 0-for-5 before his first bucket, but from there, he made five more shots in a row and finished 8-for-15.

He had help from Jalen Hudson, who added 19 points, and Dontay Bassett, who made his first start and contributed a career-high 12 points, six rebounds and a team-high two steals. White credited Bassett's performance to his team-first mentality, which is also how Bassett explained his emergence.

“We needed this win,” he said.

The Gators struggled to close games during the three-game losing streak they carried into Saturday. Each loss was by five points or fewer. Which is why, when a timeout was called with 15:38 left in the game, someone piped up in the huddle and urged the team to not let the game slip away.

“Guys,” White interrupted, “do not look at the clock. This is not about holding on.”

He wanted Florida to stay aggressive, and the Gators did. But Auburn still pushed, and with 3:55 to play, the Tigers claimed their first lead.

The game became a western shootout from there. The lead changed six times in those final minutes, with Allen contributing back-to-back threes to keep UF afloat. Then, with 50 seconds left, the unthinkable.

Florida center Kevarrius Hayes hustled around a defender and swiped a loose ball from the abyss, passing it toward a teammate with a two-point lead. The referees said he stepped out.

Replays showed that Hayes didn’t appear to step out, but the call stood anyway. Auburn tied the game on the ensuing possession, and the arena turned from an atmosphere of tension to one of rage.

That was quickly reversed by an and-one from Hudson, which gave the Gators their final lead and sent fans into a flailing noodle-arm frenzy.

“I felt like they were out there on the court with us,” Chiozza said of the especially energetic crowd.

White said he wants his team to enjoy the win. To use it as motivation with two regular-season contests left. But he also doesn’t want his players to dwell. He admits they haven’t handled winning well this season.

“I hope it makes us feel good for about an hour,” White said. “We play in Tuscaloosa on Tuesday night.”

 

 

 

February 23, 2018

Florida gymnastics thrashes Arkansas with season-best score

GAINESVILLE — The evening built to a crescendo with Kennedy Baker's floor routine as the climax. The senior was the anchor for the Gators not just on the event, but for the meet. With Florida still in range of its highest score of 2018, she made her first pass without issue. Then her foot hit the mat at the end of her next pass.

Snap.

And her body followed, as did a silence that roared through the arena, turning it from a party to a funeral in a way that only a serious injury can.

The music stopped immediately, and trainers rushed toward Baker. Her screams could be heard from press row. She couldn't stand, so they carried her to the locker room, her face wet, her teammates in shock.

The meet was already over at that point — even without Baker's score, the No. 5 Gators dominated the visiting No. 11 Arkansas Razorbacks 197.625-196.875. But fans left in near silence after her fall, not knowing if Baker will ever compete again. 

"I think it's a little too early to tell," coach Jenny Rowland said of Baker's injury. Baker is one of only two current UF gymnasts to have scored a perfect 10. 

Baker's fall was the story of the night, but to that point, the Gators had displayed some elite gymnastics. 

Florida notched its highest score of the season on the meet's first event, vault, at 49.525. Seniors Rachel Slocum and McMurtry led the Gators through the event, posting 9.95s. 

That set the tone for the night, as the Gators didn't lose any event aside from the one where Baker fell. 

McMurtry and sophomore Rachel Gowey shared the beam title (9.95) as well as the bars title (9.925). Alicia Boren won the floor with a 9.95, as well as the all around with a 39.525.

"Overall, this team did a fantastic job," Rowland said. She added that Baker was Friday's Gator of the day in her opening remarks following the meet. 

"She has their back," Rowland added, "and they have her back."

The meet took place in a pinked-out O'Connell Center, from the cloths on the judges' tables to the fans in the stands to the gymnasts, who wore pink leotards to raise awareness for breast cancer. The theme was especially meaningful for Boren, whose aunt Kathy is a survivor of the disease and was in attendance. 

"I was happy that she was here," Boren said. "More than happy — I was ecstatic.”

Florida was cruising toward a season-best score until the floor routines, when freshman Alyssa Baumann stepped out of bounds at the end of a tumbling pass and McMurtry stumbled at the end of a pass as well. Their scores of 9.725 and 9.65, respectively, were Florida's two worst scores of the night.

Then Baker came on, and you know the rest. So while Florida improved to 7-1 on the season, Friday’s meet provided more questions — rather one big, all-important question — than answers.

February 16, 2018

Florida baseball, led by Singer, picks up opening-night win

 

GAINESVILLE — Alex Faedo — Florida's 2017 ace, College World Series MVP and first-round MLB Draft pick — was back on the McKethan Stadium mound on Friday. Although he never actually made it to the rubber. 

The flame-throwing righthander instead wore jeans and a 2017 title T-Shirt as he threw out the ceremonial first pitch for Florida's season-opening game against Siena. In a symbolic moment, Brady Singer trotted out of the dugout moments later to take Faedo's Friday night spot on that mound and usher in a new season of Florida baseball. 

"He gave me a high five and told me good luck," Singer said of Faedo. He also noted that they rarely talked to each other before starts. Neither wanted to break the other's concentration. 

Clearly the high five and pair of words didn't have any negative effect on Singer, as he dominated Siena in seven innings. The junior righthander struck out eight, walked one and allowed no earned runs in Florida's 7-1 opening-night win. 

And perhaps most impressively, Singer offered 24 first-pitch strikes to the 24 hitters he faced. 

"That's the one thing I wanted to do," Singer said, "was go out there and throw strikes."

Coach Kevin O'Sullivan noted that with first-game jitters and his first Friday night start, the game could be one of Singer's most difficult of the season. He compared him to Faedo, who in last year's season opener against William and Mary allowed four earned runs in four and 2/3 innings. 

Singer, obviously, didn't have similar issues. 

"He was sharp," O'Sullivan said. 

Freshman lefty Jordan Butler completed the two-hitter for Florida, tossing two scoreless innings with four strikeouts to end the game. 

"You could just see the competitive spirit he has," O'Sullivan said of Butler, who will also hit this season. 

Four Florida players — Nelson Maldonado, JJ Schwarz, Blake Reese and Nick Horvath — had two hits on the night, while five players notched RBIs. Among them were newcomers Brady McConnell and Wil Dalton. 

McConnell had a rough go in his first college game, striking out on his first three at-bats. He also committed a costly error that gave Siena its only run of the game. 

But after a hug from Singer following the error and a talk with O'Sullivan following the string of strikeouts, he smashed a home run to give the Gators their final two runs of the game. 

"I knew it was gone," he said of his arching rainbow shot. Junior third baseman Jonathan India also hit a home run — a solo shot in the fourth inning — that cleared the left-field bleachers and gave the Gators their first run of 2018. 

As for Dalton, he roped a ball to left field on his third at-bat of the game to claim his first hit and RBI at UF. The sophomore transferred from junior college and started in right field. 

"I started to relax toward the end of the game and simplify things," he said. 

The Gators continue their three-game weekend homestand against Siena on Saturday afternoon at 4, with Singer's roommate Jackson Kowar scheduled to start for Florida. O'Sullivan tried to temper expectations for that game and the rest of the season, though he did so with a smile. 

"We're not gonna go 56-0," he joked. "I can promise you that."

 



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