The Florida Gators expected to come out with high energy and improved play on Tuesday after a 10-day break between games for finals and refreshment. The expectations didn’t translate to reality as the Gators had a close call with the Mercer Bears at home.
After Noah Locke drained a pair of early three balls and Jalen Hudson drove in for a layup to give Florida a quick 8-0 advantage, the Gators never could seem to keep the momentum going and put a solid performance together.
Mercer used a Florida drought to close the gap 13-12, but KeVaughn Allen responded with a three.
The Bears came back within a point a couple minutes later, and again, Allen immediately drained a triple to make it 23-19.
Allen was doing enough to keep the Gators out in front, but Mercer was pretty good from three-point range as well. Djordje Dimitrijevic hit back-to-back shots from beyond the arc to give the Bears their first lead with 6:26 to go in the first half.
After a timeout by Florida, Locke and Allen came through for five quick points and went back up 28-25.
Mercer brought it back within three points just before the end of the half, but Locke made one last three-pointer with time running out. That sent the game to halftime with the Gators up 35-28.
Florida was able to extend and maintain its lead for most of the second half. It led by as many as 16 with a score of 60-44 and just over five minutes remaining.
At that point, Locke said he thought the team was feeling good about itself and the game was in the bag. It certainly seemed that way, but it was far from over.
Bit by bit, the Bears chipped away at the score. An 8-0 run made it 60-52 with 1:40 left in the game.
Despite a less than optimal few minutes, the Gators were still in good position to come out on top.
Mercer needed to foul two more times to put Florida in the bonus and give itself a chance, so it did.
Then, Andrew Nembhard did something he’s done very few times this season—he made a freshman mistake. All the Gators really needed was another foul and a couple made free throws and that would likely do it, but a poor inbounds pass straight into the hands of a Bears’ defender made for an easy layup, and suddenly it was a six-point game.
Nembhard made up for it with four consecutive made free throws to extend the lead back to 64-54 with 1:08 to go.
But Mercer just wouldn’t go away. Things got really interesting when Jaylen Stowe hit a three to bring it within five points with 28 seconds on the clock, but Allen came through by making four free throws in the end to finally put the game away and give Florida a 71-63 win.
While the Gators put another tally in the win column to move to 6-4 on the season, it was not pretty and Mike White was far from pleased with the product his team put on the court.
“We’re begging our guys to huddle with each other, we’re begging for leadership and communication,” he said. “Many miscues down the stretch. Just the wrong mentality, wrong approach from the jump. It’s one of the reasons we’re not shooting the ball well. We’re not thinking about the right stuff. We sensed in the locker room before the game that our guys weren’t on it as much as they’ve been lately. I don’t understand.”
The Gators are still searching for veteran leadership outside of Kevarrius Hayes, and at this point, it’s not looking like it’s going to come.
Something telling to that point was the fact that Hudson got his first start in weeks, but rather than replacing a freshman, he replaced a fellow senior in Allen.
It felt like this might be the game Hudson would break out of his struggles early on as he made a shot, grabbed a rebound, dished an assist and drew a charge all within the first three minutes, but that trend did not continue. He ended up 1-for-7 and 0-for-4 from three in 14 minutes (most of which came in the first half).
While he didn’t get the start for the first time in a while, Allen came in and did some positive things for the Gators as he scored 15 points.
“I thought KeVaughn responded really well,” White said. “He didn’t bat an eye about not starting. It wasn’t a subject. He played a pretty good game, played with good energy and made some shots. Jalen had a really good week of practice. We wanted to reward him for that.”
As the older guys are still working some things out, the freshmen continue to shine. No one shined brighter than Locke, who matched a career-high 18 points. He was 6-for-13 from the field and made five of Florida’s 12 three-pointers on the night.
“He was really good,” White said. “He plays as hard as anyone on our team. I thought he and Kevarrius Hayes played the hardest tonight, brought the most life to this team. You combine that with making shots, and it’s hard to take him out of the game.”
On a night when the defense struggled, Hayes was a guy the team could count on. He had a career-best 11 rebounds and 5 blocked shots to go along with 8 points.
Those are the positives to take away, but after a game like this one, White and the Gators are likely dwelling on the negatives far more.
Going 12-for-33 from deep and defending at a below-average level can be overcome against a team like Mercer, but won’t get the job done in an SEC schedule.
Florida still has a little time to figure things out as it travels to play FGCU in the Orange Bowl Classic on Saturday and returns home for a rematch with Butler next week before conference play begins.