The Florida Gators are far from the best team in this year’s SEC Tournament field, but they will go toe-to-toe with any of them. That’s what they did on Friday.
The No. 1 seed LSU Tigers came to play, but Florida came to win.
With so much uncertainty about their standing for the NCAA Tournament, the Gators knew they needed to make another statement. Freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard wasn’t ready to put Florida’s fate into the hands of the selection committee.
With the game all tied up and just 13 seconds left in regulation, the Gators had one last chance before the two teams would go into their third overtime meeting of the season. Fellow freshman Keyontae Johnson drove into the paint before kicking it out to an open Nembhard outside the arc, and he let it fly.
Swoosh. Victory. Semifinals. Ticket punched.
An hour earlier, it would’ve been hard to believe Florida would even be close enough to do that late in the game.
Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams devoured the Gators inside early on, with 26 of the Tigers’ 35 first half points coming in the paint. Within the first five minutes, LSU had already dunked the ball four times.
Florida wasn’t defending anywhere near the level it had all year, and that’s almost impossible to overcome when shots aren’t falling.
The Tigers stretched their lead to as many as 13 points in the first 20 minutes, and honestly, it could have easily been much more than that. The Gators considered themselves fortunate to go to the locker room down only 35-25.
“We were getting dominated on the interior based off actions that we defend every day,” said head coach Mike White. “It was discouraging—the defensive intensity and level of accountability there in the first half. We watched it all with the guys as we always do, and there wasn’t a lot that really needed to be said at that point. Kevarrius Hayes has gotten to the point where he really runs our locker room. I stopped talking and let him get onto the guys a little bit.”
It took a few minutes for Florida to get something going in the second half, but once it did, it meant trouble for LSU. This is a scrappy bunch, and it’s going to take advantage of the opportunities it’s given.
After LSU went back up by 13, Nembhard drained a three-pointer that started the avalanche. The Gators, who shot 34.5 percent in the first half and an abysmal 13.3 percent from deep, went on to make nine consecutive shots.
The real shift in momentum came when Johnson grabbed a steal and took it back for an easy dunk, then Nembhard put it up for him the next possession and Johnson finished with a monster slam. The energy from that point just felt different than it had all game.
A turnover by the Tigers just seconds later forced them to call a timeout, but it did no good as Kevarrius Hayes scored the next four Florida points and the Gators started to string together stops. That made it 46-42 LSU with 12:37 remaining.
Johnson drove in for a layup to answer a score by the Tigers on the next possession, then grabbed another steal and Jalen Hudson came through with a big three, making it a one-point game.
LSU continued to find ways to hang onto the lead for dear life, but Florida’s time was coming.
The Gators had been cursed at the free throw line all day, but ironically, a couple of made free throws by Hudson gave Florida its very first lead 58-57 with 6:05 remaining.
The Tigers took the lead once again and stretched it to three points, but at the 3:45 mark, Johnson knocked down a three to tie it as Reid fouled Hayes nearly simultaneously.
LSU interim head coach Tony Benford didn’t seem too pleased with the call and argued that the basket should not have counted. That led to a technical foul, and ultimately may have cost his team the game.
Rather than only Hayes (a below-average free throw shooter) going to the line, the Gators also sent KeVaughn Allen out for a couple no-doubters. He knocked them both down to give Florida a two-point cushion, and Hayes made one to make it 66-63.
Just like that, Florida came away with six points in a single possession.
Rather than falling apart late as they have countless times this season, the Gators became the team with all the answers.
The Tigers took advantage of a couple mistakes and went back up by one with 3:06 on the clock. But a layup from Nembhard put Florida on top, then he found Hayes the next time down the court for a money jumper.
Of course, the always calm, cool and collected Reid had something to say about that as he tied it 70-70 with a three-pointer at the one-minute mark. Nembhard drew a foul with 37 seconds left, but made just one of his attempts, putting the pressure on the defense to execute.
Tremont Waters couldn’t get a triple to go, but LSU had been so good on the offensive glass all game. Bigby-Williams grabbed the offensive rebound, or so it seemed. The 6’11 monster of a man had the ball in his grip, but Allen ripped it right out, and the Tigers were forced to foul him with 24 seconds.
He made both free throws to go up 73-70, but was it ever really a question if LSU would hit the must-have three? Reid again came through, making it look effortless.
Reid was good, but Nembhard was just a little bit better (and had just a little more time) as he and the Gators lived to fight another day with a 76-73 win.
“That was a huge play,” Hudson said. “Amazing shot by Nembhard. I’m so glad he made it so we could get the win. It was an amazing play.”
The freshmen were outstanding and led the way once again. Nembhard had 20 points (7-for-14, 3-for-7) and 6 assists without a single turnover while Johnson got his second straight double-double at 16 points (7-for-11, 2-for-5) and 10 rebounds.
“They’ve developed throughout the year,” White said. “They’ve gotten better and better. They both exude accountability, toughness. Both of them were tough as nails today and made big plays for us offensively and defensively.”
The seniors came up huge for the Gators when it counted as well. Hudson scored 13, followed by Allen at 12 and Hayes at 11 points and 8 boards.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Florida never gave up as it outscored LSU 51-38 in the second half and finished shooting near a 60 percent clip. White couldn’t be any more proud of his team following the game.
“We’re pretty good,” he said. “Our league is so good. It’s ridiculous. From top to bottom. To be as competitive as we were against these guys three times, to get them twice, I think says a lot about the heart and character of our team, our resiliency and the development of this team over time.”
Florida will continue its battle for an SEC Tournament championship on Saturday at 1 p.m. against the winner of the game between Auburn and South Carolina.