Ultimately, it was another loss for Missouri, another hard-fought yet tough-to-stomach defeat against one of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
No. 3 Florida toppled the Tigers 68-58 on Tuesday night at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla., where the Gators have now won 28 consecutive games.
The final score obscures that fact that Missouri, which led at halftime and still led midway through the second half, played on even terms through much of the game.
But at the end of the day, the Tigers slipped back below .500 in conference play and missed another opportunity for a resume-building victory.
“We did a good job of defending and trying to limit (junior) Jabari (Brown) from threes towards the end of game,” Gators senior Scottie Wilbekin, who scored a game- and career-high 19 points, told ESPN’s Shannon Spake after the game. “That’s what pulled it out for us.”
Missouri, 16-6 and 4-5 in the SEC, scored its fewest points of the season and the fewest since last year’s visit to Gainesville, an unsightly 83-52 loss.
Still, for more than 30 minutes, the Tigers seemed poised for an upset.
Missouri led as late as the 9:57 mark in the second half on a jumper by junior Jordan Clarkson, which put the Tigers on top 45-43, but Florida took control from there with a 16-3 run.
Wilbekin kicked off the game-clinching outburst with a pair of free throws.
From there, sophomore Michael Frazier II erupted for three three-pointers — all from the right wing against the Tigers’ zone — in less than two minutes during the Gators’ game-clinching spurt.
Missouri had been terrific defending the three-point line prior to that, limiting Florida to one of 11 from long range in the first half.
But after Frazier went off and senior Patric Young capped the outburst with a free throw at the 3:21 mark for a 59-48 lead, the Tigers never drew closer than eight points the rest of the way.
The Gators, 20-2 and 9-0 in the SEC, hit five of nine threes in the second half, thanks to better ball movement and an emphasis on attacking the basket, which opened up the perimeter.
Getting the ball inside also helped Florida finish 24 of 33 at the free-throw line compared to eight of 12 for the Tigers.
“They were more aggressive than we were, that’s why they went to the free-throw line more than we did,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said.
The Tigers absorbed the Gators’ opening shot thanks to sophomore Ryan Rosburg, who finished with eight points and seven rebounds. His two early buckets kept Haith’s squad afloat before freshman Wes Clark delivered an 11-8 lead on a three-pointer seven minutes into the game.
Missouri led by as many as five in the first half on a three-point by senior Earnest Ross with 5:27 left before halftime, but that was Ross’ only basket. He went one of eight overall and one of five from three-point range.
Meanwhile, making his college debut, Florida freshman Chris Walker, who sat out until Tuesday because of academic issues and as the NCAA investigated his amateur status, knotted the game with back-to-back alley-oop dunks off lobs from fellow freshman Kasey Hill.
“I know the crowd loved it, (and) we love it, too,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said of Walker’s impact. “It was great to see him out there playing.”
Still, the Tigers led 28-25 at halftime on Brown’s 28-foot buzzer from deep on the left wing.
Brown finished with a team-high 15 points, which snapped a run of six straight games with at least 20. The last Missouri player to do that was Doug Smith during the 1990-91 season.
Clarkson finished with 14 points. He and Brown have reached double figures in each of the Tigers’ 22 games.
Missouri is in the midst of the toughest section of its conference schedule, a four-game run that started with a win at Arkansas followed by a home loss to Kentucky and the loss at Florida.
Theoretically, the Tigers’ schedule lightens up after Saturday’s game at Mississippi, but a win against the Gators sure would have been nice.