Maybe this is another mirage, the latest peak in a dizzying array of sine waves for Mike White’s Gator basketball team. Or maybe, after we all erroneously thought this team had turned the corner several times before, this is the game that springboards the Gators forward.
Keyontae Johnson finished with a career high 25 points- 17 of which came in the first half- and eleven rebounds for his fourth double double in the last six games, Scottie Lewis broke through with 18 points of his own, and Andrew Nembhard added a healthy 17 points as Florida avenged a tough 84-82 loss to LSU last month in Baton Rouge with an 81-66 dismantling of the Bayou Bengals in Gainesville. Florida has now won four out of its last five games, with all four wins coming by fourteen points or more, to improve to 18-10 on the year and put themselves in prime position to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Florida shot out of the gates by scoring the first nine points of the game and built a 14-2 lead in a game that they would lead wire to wire. Moreover, the Gators set the mood early with 28 of their first 35 points in the paint, finishing with 46 points in the lane on the night. The difference in the game, though, was that Florida and LSU finished dead even in rebounds with 33 apiece- which is simultaneously embarrassing for the Tigers given their team wide massive height advantage and impressive for the Gators for that same reason.
Even on the occasions when LSU did pull down the board, the Gators would benefit from it. Down 29-19 midway through the first half, Skylar Mays cruised for what he thought was an uncontested defensive rebound. No sooner had he put two hands on the ball than Keyontae Johnson picked his pocket and put it in for a layup. On the very next possession, Mays completely deked out Scottie Lewis on a ball fake, casually dribbled through the open floor toward the rim and promptly missed the wide open slam dunk. The ball bounded harmlessly away to Ques Glover.
The closest thing to a nervous moment came late in the second half. Florida was up 63-44 with ten minutes to go when LSU mounted a run and closed the gap to 70-60 with five minutes to go. But Nembhard found Lewis for a dunk, and moments later Noah Locke buried a three to increase Florida’s lead back to fifteen. For good measure, Johnson fed Lewis for another dunk with just under two minutes to go, and that was that.
Other than the draw in the rebounding department, the stat of the game was that Florida had seventeen assists. They came into the game with eleven and a half per game- outside the top 300 out of 353 Division I basketball teams, and tied for second worst in the SEC.
And as a result of all of that, Florida suddenly stands in a much better position than anybody could have dreamed of two weeks ago when Mississippi had just finished smacking the Gators upside the head. It’s too late for Mike White’s Gator basketball team to make a run at the SEC crown, but this team can still push for a #7 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would see them avoid playing one of the top four teams in the country in the first weekend of the tournament.
And more importantly, the more they play like this, the better suited they’ll be to pull off the kind of unforgettable run in the NCAA Tournament that this team was supposed to pull off all along.