The Florida Gators ended a couple of losing streaks Wednesday night as they pulled out a 66-57 win over the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Florida has struggled mightily with Vandy in Mike White’s tenure as it came into the game having lost six of the last seven and five straight matchups. On top of that, the Gators had lost three consecutive games and were in a must-win situation.
Vandy showed early why it had not won a single SEC game this season, but Florida didn’t look much better.
The Gators were up 5-4 at the first media timeout as the two teams struggled to keep possession of the basketball. There were five turnovers combined within the first five minutes of play.
Florida then used a 13-1 run to get out to an 18-7 lead.
Once again, the Gators sat back and watched a double-digit lead dwindle in the final seven minutes of the half. A 10-0 run from the Commodores led by a couple of three-pointers from Matt Ryan tied the game at 22-22 with 4:29 left in the half.
Vandy led by as many as five points before an Isaiah Stokes put back layup at the buzzer made it 33-31. Stokes led the Gators in scoring in the first half with 8 points.
He hasn’t been much of a factor this season, but he played some quality minutes and was huge in helping replace starting center Kevarrius Hayes, who got in early foul trouble.
Andrew Nembhard also stayed on the bench for much of the first half after picking up a couple of fouls. But a three-pointer by Keyontae Johnson followed by five straight points from Nembhard to start the second half pushed Florida back to a six-point advantage.
While the Gators were back on top, they just never could take complete control of the game.
With Aaron Nesmith going off for Vandy (26 points) and Florida’s two most talented scorers nowhere to be found, it made for a tough night.
The Commodores brought it back within a point with 10:53 to go, but a couple of made free throws by Johnson and a clutch corner three by Mike Okauru pushed it back to 48-42.
Again, Vandy would not go away as Nesmith continued to get to the foul line and convert on his free throws. He made it 48-46 with 6:49 remaining.
That’s when Jalen Hudson stepped up. White had been displeased with him for much of the night for being a bit selfish with the ball in his hands, but he came through when Florida needed him most.
Over the next two minutes, Hudson made 5-of-6 free throws and tacked on a jumper for seven straight points.
Nesmith ended Hudson’s run with a three, but KeVaughn Allen answered with his very first points of the night coming on free throws with 3:17 to go.
Johnson came up with a big steal with just over two minutes on the clock. After getting fouled, he came through at the line to make it 59-52.
The Gators needed the freshman to convert one last time in the final minute, and he did. The 23-for-28 night at the free throw line is what sealed a win for Florida in the end.
Johnson tied a career-high and led the team with 15 points. He also grabbed a team-high 9 rebounds.
“He’s been in a tough situation playing the four, but he’s really accepted it and embraced it, and it really showed tonight,” said Hudson. “He’s always been on the boards, but tonight he was able to score a little bit and just be aggressive.”
Florida’s bench outscored Vandy’s bench 29-7, led by 10 points from Hudson, 8 from Stokes and 5 from Okauru.
There is no telling how sideways things could have gone without that production with Allen and Noah Locke going 2-for-19 from the field in the game along with Nembhard playing just 16 minutes.
“I think you’ve gotta credit our bench,” White said. “Our bench has struggled this year. They’ve been challenged daily. They were very good. We got contributions from a lot of guys in a game where we probably needed it the most.”
The Gators can’t enjoy this one for too long as they get ready to hit the road again. Florida will travel to Alabama on Saturday before heading to Baton Rouge to take on a hot LSU team next week.
A win over Vandy is a start, but it’s going to be an uphill battle the rest of the way if the Gators want to go dancing.