- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's one thing to lose. It's another to fall victim to a cliché. One bounce. Ugh. How many times does the game really come down to one bounce? One slight, imperceptible angle? One unwitting deflection?
"Almost never" is the answer. Less than the cliché implies, that's for sure. And yet there Florida was Monday night, losers at the last second thanks to a combination of Shabazz Napier's lights-out jumper, his unyielding winning-time confidence and -- yes -- a singularly unlucky bounce.
That bounce, the one that started as a wayward Napier jumper and careened off center DeAndre Daniels' left hand en route to Napier's wide-open second chance, proved the difference between what would have been a hard-fought, 64-63 Florida win and the Napier walk-off, the Gampel Pavilion standing ovation, the drowned-out Kevin Ollie interview and the 65-64 loss it became.
"It was so slim [a margin], I just thought if I give it a chance, I'm going to try to make it," Napier said on the floor after the game. "I got the good bounce after I missed the shot. Good thing I missed it terribly."
Gut-punch circumstances aside, there is plenty of good news for Florida. The randomness involved, and the impressive performance Billy Donovan's team put together before the final possession robbed them of the victory, is reason for optimism in and of itself.
Because the Gators were mostly excellent Monday night, and that transition be followed by mention of Casey Prather, who suddenly, stubbornly refuses to play anything but brilliant basketball.
For three years, Prather was never more than a role player; he attempted 127 field goals as a junior in 2012-13. A year later, he is playing like an All-American: Prather went 8-of-13 Monday night, making him 55-of-85 (64.7 percent) from 2-point range this season. He exploits angles and gets his 6-foot-6 frame to the rim at will; he grabs offensive rebounds and outmuscles mismatches; and he draws 7.1 fouls every 40 minutes. Whatever questions Florida fans might have had about the team's secondary offensive options should be quashed by now. Prather has the look of a star.
Though the putative primary option, center Patric Young, wasn't far off either Monday night. He finished 6-of-10 from the field with 17 points and seven rebounds, and, even more impressive, scored 10 of Florida's final 13 points, taking the game over in the final minutes. Young is a tireless interior defender who turns stops into secondary sprints and early posts. (He is as much fun to watch run as he is with the ball in his hands, I reckon.) And now, four years into his career, he's better when the ball arrives than ever before.
Point guard Scottie Wilbekin, back in the fold after an offseason spent in Donovan's doghouse, was very good, too. He is Florida's best defender and one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, period. But an ankle sprain that kept him off the floor for the final three minutes proved crippling to the Gators.
"I was concerned coming down the stretch with Scottie being out," Donovan told the Associated Press. "I didn't think we could guard Napier at least for that three minutes. So we decided to play 1-3-1 zone and try to use our length. We went man on the last possession."
Which brings us to the pessimistic upshot: Florida can't keep losing players. One more is too many. Freshman point guard Kasey Hill's high ankle sprain in mid-November was bad enough, but Wilbekin came back in time to alleviate the loss. Now Wilbekin is facing a similar issue, with no sign of Hill just yet. Would-be freshman star Chris Walker is still trying to get eligible for the spring semester. Dillon Graham and Eli Carter are, in the words of Alligator Army's Andy Hutchins, "so hurt they need to redshirt." Donovan last week said he has "no hope" Damontre Harris will return from suspension, saying there was "no level of accountability on the things that he needs to do on a regular basis."
All of these woes have left Florida with, in effect, six players Donovan feels comfortable playing big minutes, a number that shrunk to five when Wilbekin left the game Monday night. How long before the losses become too much? How frightening must it be, living one injury away from desolation?
Still, if I'm a Florida fan, I'm excited. The Gators are talented enough to be this depleted and this competitive at the same time? That bodes well. Things haven't gone as planned for one of the nation's most talented teams since about July, and yet Donovan's group is taking Napier and company to the wire in Storrs, Conn. as early as the first week of December.
Actually, check that: Florida took Napier to the final bounce. That they were on the wrong end of the cliché says less about their outlook than the personnel woes they so badly need to put behind them. There are only so many Gators to go around.