The Florida Gators secured their place in SEC Tournament Quarterfinals, and likely in the NCAA Tournament, with a 66-50 win over the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday.
In a do or die game, a freshman and a senior stepped up in a huge way.
From the very first possession, Keyontae Johnson played like a guy who had been there a thousand times. It took KeVaughn Allen a little longer to get going, but when he did, he made his home-state Razorbacks pay.
Johnson scored eight of Florida’s first 12 points to keep his team in the game as the Razorbacks had the Gators playing at their pace over the first 10 minutes. With Arkansas leading 17-9, Johnson drained his second three-pointer of the game to bring it back within five.
After Daniel Gafford answered on the other end, Allen came through with a three ball to make it 19-15. Noah Locke grabbed a steal and hit a jumper on the fast break to make it a two-point game, but it didn’t take long for the Razorbacks to build their advantage to five points once again.
Within a matter of 20 seconds, Allen hit a floater, forced a turnover, and finished with a dunk to cut the deficit to 22-21. Arkansas’ Isaiah Joe made a three, but Allen answered right back with one of his own for seven straight Florida points.
On the next possession, Dontay Bassett grabbed an offensive rebound and got a layup to go to give the Gators their first lead since the opening minutes of the game. Just over a minute later, Bassett was right there again fighting for an offensive rebound and got fouled. He made both free throws to go up 28-25 with 3:07 left in the half.
During that same stretch as Florida took the lead, Arkansas turned it over five times in eight possessions.
The Razorbacks came back to tie it 28-28 near the end of the half, but then Johnson made a beautiful play to get a second chance layup to go. The Gators went on to lead 30-28 at halftime.
Florida didn’t get off to a great start in the second half, but a baseline out of bounds play, which the Gators have been so good at all season, set the tone for the remainder of the game. With Florida up by just one and 17:33 to go, Andrew Nembhard put it up for Johnson who came out of nowhere for a slam.
Then, Jalen Hudson then briefly got out of his funk to score five straight points for the Gators, making it 38-34.
Around the 8-minute mark, Arkansas briefly brought it back within three points, but that’s the closest it would get to sniffing a comeback. Mike White felt the pressure starting to build on his guys again and smartly called the timeout.
Allen put up a three just after the break, and it rattled around for what felt like forever, but it finally fell and gave Florida the rejuvenation it needed to finish things out.
The Gators started playing with aggression, driving to the basket and finishing layups or drawing fouls. That made it 58-48 with 3:20 remaining. Then, Nembhard (who hadn’t made a shot from the field all day) hit the dagger three to lay the game to bed.
Johnson put the cap on his career game with a three-pointer in the final minute just for good measure as Florida cruised to victory.
The freshman finished with his second double-double of the season as he put up a career-high 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. He made 8-of-14 shots from the floor (3-for-5 from long range) and split his production on the boards right down the middle at 6 on offense and 6 on defense.
Behind him, Allen always seems to show up against Arkansas, and Florida desperately needed him to in this one. He had 17 points on 6-for-14 shooting.
“He’d been really struggling coming into this one, and he needed to have a big one today, regardless of what team it was,” White said. “It’s the SEC Tournament … There might’ve been a little incentive because he’s from Arkansas.”
The Gators dominated on the boards 41-26 with a huge advantage at 19-9 on the offensive glass for a grand total of 18 second chance points.
Defensively, Florida was not great in the first half as Arkansas shot 50 percent, but that really picked up late in the game as the Gators held the Razorbacks to 25 percent in the final 20 minutes.
Now, Florida should feel much more confident in its chances to make the tournament and play with a looser mentality in Friday’s game. But nothing is guaranteed at this point, and a win over LSU would seal the deal.
The Tigers are in a strange situation right now with the ongoing Will Wade saga, and the Gators have an opportunity to take full advantage.
“We all know how good they are,” White said. “Hopefully we’re competitive enough in the same regard to have a chance late and we’re in that same position where we can steal another one versus them.”