Florida let Missouri keep dreaming about a school-record sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance for one half.
Then the No. 1-ranked Gators crushed the Tigers’ hopes with a dominant second half in a 72-49 victory Friday in the SEC quarterfinals at the Georgia Dome.
The loss probably relegates Missouri — which went 3-4 down the stretch, including a loss at Alabama and blowout defeats against Georgia, Tennessee and Florida — to the National Invitation Tournament.
“I think we’re a good enough team to (play in the NCAA Tournament), but sometimes we didn’t show it,” Tigers sophomore Ryan Rosburg said. “But I think that we can play with anyone.”
Missouri, 22-11, showed that in the first half against Florida, 30-2, when Rosburg’s buzzer-beating jam at the halftime horn had the game tied the score at 29-29.
But the Tigers managed only 20 second-half points, while the Gators, who have won 24 consecutive games, shot a sizzling 57 percent on the heels of a nine-for-26 first-half shooting performance.
“Things were not going their way in the first half, and I thought we looked a little bit pouty and cranky to me,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Then, I thought in the second half, they moved past that and got more playing to the identity we play to.”
The Gators bolted from the second-half gate with a 7-0 run and never trailed in the final 20 minutes. The Tigers hung tough for a while and remained as close as 38-36 on a layup by junior Jordan Clarkson with 11:55 remaining, but Florida dominated from there.
Senior Will Yeguete kicked off a game-clinching 23-4 run with a layup around the 10-minute mark.
Junior Keanau Post’s ensuing inbounds pass was stolen by senior Scottie Wilbekin, who passed it back to Yeguete while falling out of bounds.
“The referee’s count was counting down, so I knew that (Jabari) Brown was going to go try to make a break for the ball,” said Wilbekin, who finished with a team-high 15 points and four steals. “I was able to get there before him and save the ball to Will.”
Wilbekin then raced back to the left corner, where he drilled a three off a return pass from Yeguete.
“It was a good steal and great shot, so you’ve got to give him credit,” Rosburg said. “But it could have definitely been avoided if he make a better pass (or) get open, make a better decision. If they don’t hit that shot, who knows? Maybe they don’t go on that run.”
Brown, a junior, missed a three-pointer on Missouri’s next possession, part of an icy two of 12 start from the field to the second half. The long rebound triggered a break for Florida and senior Patric Young’s finger-roll finish.
Two free throws by senior Casey Prather and another three by Wilbekin had the Gators in front 50-36 after a 12-0 burst.
“He played real well today,” Clarkson said of Wilbekin. “He played like the player of the year in our conference.”
Brown, who finished with game-high 18 points, broke up the run with two free throws, but Florida countered with an 11-2 burst for a commanding 61-40 lead after a three by sophomore Michael Frazier II, who matched Wilbekin’s 15 points.
The Gators went 12 of 21 from long range, while the Tigers were one for 13. Senior Earnest Ross opened the game with a bomb, but Missouri missed its last 12 from distance, including all six second-half tries.
“The second half they played a lot more zone, because I don’t feel like they feel like they matched up very well in man the way we were playing in the first half,” Brown said. “Once that happened, it got a little tougher to get good shots consistently.”
“They’re a veteran team and they’re never going to get flustered,” Brown said. “We knew when we were tied at half they weren’t worried and they were going to continue to play the way they play. That’s what a good team does.”
Before Florida’s trademark second-half run, Missouri could dream. Now, the dream likely becomes a run at Madison Square Garden, site of the NIT Final Four.
“We’ll know more about our postseason opportunities come Sunday, but I do know we’ll have the chance to compete for a championship,” coach Frank Haith said. “We want to be playing in the NCAA Tournament. That’s our standard here at Missouri. But with the way our young guys are coming along, the extra practices and extra games to compete will be important for the future.”