No. 8 Florida outlasts No. 9 Arkansas 68-61 in SEC
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The victorious outcome mattered more to Florida coach Mike White than the aesthetics of his team’s performance that left room for improvement.
White certainly appreciated the Gators’ play at clutch moments that resulted in a hard-fought win over Arkansas.
Kasey Hill scored 18 points, including a clutch layup with 53 seconds remaining that helped eighth-seeded Florida outlast No. 9 seed Arkansas 68-61 on Thursday in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Gators led 55-46 with 6:45 remaining before the Razorbacks rallied within 60-59 with 1:07 left on Dusty Hannahs’ layup. Hill then sliced through for a layup to provide some breathing room, and Florida (19-13) outscored Arkansas 6-2 down in the last minute to seal a victory it needed to rebuild its NCAA Tournament resume’.
“We did enough the second half defensively, stepped up and made a few big shots to get us that first win,” the first-year Gators coach said. “You can’t do something special in a tournament like this, obviously, unless you win the first one. And we took care of business.”
Florida shot just 39 percent and made just 18 of 30 from the foul line. But the Gators came up with the timely free throw, basket or rebound they needed to advance to Friday’s quarterfinal against top-seeded Texas A&M.
Dorian Finney-Smith had 13 points and KeVaughn Allen 11 for Florida, which made 5 of its first 6 3-pointers in the second half to build an 11-point lead that proved to be just enough.
Hannahs scored a career-high 33 points for Arkansas (16-16), which shot 36 percent and struggled in other phases. The Razorbacks made just 2 of 12 from long range after entering as the league’s best 3-point shooting team and converted just 15 of 25 free throws. Their bench was also outscored 28-5.
Hannahs’ 12-of-23 shooting and edges in rebounding (45-40) and paint points (32-24) gave Arkansas a chance, but the Razorbacks just couldn’t seize late opportunities against the Gators.
“We played good enough defense, I thought, holding Florida to 68 points,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “But on the other end, you’ve got to be able to put the ball in the hole.”
Florida sophomore center John Egbunu added nine rebounds and eight points despite playing with a brace on his right thumb that was injured in practice on Tuesday. Those contributions were also huge in a game the Gators led most of the way before needing late heroics to seal the win.
A late charging foul on Arkansas’ Anton Beard after Hill’s basket was also critical, leading to Finney-Smith’s two free throws with 26.8 seconds left. Egbunu’s defensive rebound led to Devin Robinson’s slam and Allen added two free throws with 4.1 seconds for the exclamation point.
Florida won the first SEC tournament meeting between the schools since 2009 and this one was important in getting the Gators into the NCAA Tournament discussion. Their main concern was stringing together back-to-back wins after a four-game slide, a quest made more challenging by questions about Egbunu’s availability.
Kevarrius Hayes played the first 2½ minutes in place of Egbunu, who appeared to be adjusting to playing with the hand and wrist bandaged. He initially seemed more inclined to be a physical presence on defense before eventually getting on the board with a dunk that helped the Gators tie the game at 15.
Egbunu became more involved by diving into a loose-ball scramble before asserting himself on the boards with six first-half rebounds that got Florida out of a back-and-forth battle into a 29-23 lead at halftime.
“Apart from the few times when I dove on the floor and kind of hit it pretty bad, it was bearable,” Egbunu said of the injury.
Florida: The Gators made 8 of 20 from long range. ... They also mproved to 4-1 all-time against the Razorbacks in the SEC tournament.
Arkansas: Anthlon Bell made 4 of 6 free throws after entering the game having made 29 straight free throws over the past 10 contests.
Florida: Faces top-seeded Texas A&M on Friday.
Arkansas: Season over.