The Florida Gators were feeling some serious déjà vu on Wednesday in a close call with the Arkansas Razorbacks on the road.
In a game littered with fouls, less than stellar offense and late lapses, the Gators nearly allowed the Razorbacks to do the same thing South Carolina did just a few days prior.
Both teams struggled to buy a basket in the first half. Twelve minutes into the game, Florida had made just one of its last nine shots, and it was winning 12-6.
At that same point, Arkansas had made one of its last 12 and the Gators were on a 10-0 run.
No stat could explain the story of the first half better than the two teams combining for an 0-for-22 start from beyond the arc. The defense was good, but both teams (Florida especially) were missing on some good looks.
The Razorbacks brought it back within a point with six minutes left in the half, but Noah Locke answered with a three to finally end the shooting slump. Mason Jones drained a three on the other end for Arkansas before a Kevarrius Hayes layup and a beautiful move to the basket by Andrew Nembhard that resulted in a three-point play.
That put the Gators back up by six and they stretched it all the way to 11 by the break.
Despite and insane number of fouls being called in the second half, Florida was able to take advantage of the Razorbacks’ poor free throw shooting and still control the pace of the game.
Much like South Carolina, Arkansas never let Florida get too far out of reach. Still, it felt like a 16-point advantage with 9:13 remaining would be enough to get the job done.
It turned out the game was far from over.
Bit by bit, the Razorbacks chipped away at the deficit.
The Gators hadn’t scored in almost two minutes when Jones made a layup, KeVaughn Allen turned it over under the basket on the following inbounds play and Adrio Bailey had an easy score. Jones found Daniel Gafford for a layup on Arkansas’ next possession, and just like that, things were very hairy again.
Florida watched its lead slip away as it was cut all the way to five points without a single answer.
Jalen Hudson hit a clutch jumper with 2:35 to go, putting the Gators back up by five, but seven straight points from Jones made it 53-51 right around the one minute mark.
Nembhard drove to the basket the next time down the court, but came up empty, leaving the Razorbacks a chance to tie or take the lead. They got a couple of chances with an offensive rebound, but couldn’t get anything to go and were forced to foul Allen with 12 seconds on the clock.
Nothing could have been more fitting than for Allen to step up and make four free throws in those final seconds to put the game to bed and defeat his home-state team 57-51.
Allen finished as Florida’s leading scorer with 18 points as he made just 3 of 11 shots from the field, but came up big with 11 of his 12 free throw attempts.
“He was clutch down the stretch,” said head coach Mike White. “He has been his whole career. He’s got a terrific percentage from the foul line. He’s such a laid-back guy. He never changed his facial expression.”
Locke also finished in double figures with 10 points while Hudson was just behind with 9 and a team-high 6 rebounds.
Ultimately, the Gators shot just 31 percent (18-for-58), but that was enough to best the Razorbacks.
In reality, Florida only had to best a single player. Jones was responsible for 30 of those 51 points, and the Arkansas bench didn’t provide any scoring aid.
The Gators were also up against another tightly called game as they had 25 personal fouls (there were also 20 called on the Razorbacks).
It was not pretty by any means, but Florida will take a win any way it can get it right now.
“They came to play and fight, and they did a really good job playing from behind,” White said of Arkansas. “We did just enough. Any win in Bud Walton Arena is a good win.”
The Gators may have been able to overcome some struggles against the Razorbacks, but it won’t be that way next game. The No. 3 team in the country is coming to town on Saturday, and Tennessee will make Florida pay if it comes out and puts on a performance resembling its first two SEC contests.