GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After wilting down the stretch in two tough SEC losses last week, Florida delivered a more spirited finish Wednesday night and, in turn, a much-needed victory.
The Gators snapped a three-game conference losing streak with a 73-64 win against LSU inside Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center.
While it was encouraging to his see his team get back on track, the thorough performance on both sides of the floor also left coach Mike White wondering why Florida can’t play that way more often.
“I don’t understand why we can’t do that every single night. I don’t know why we can’t do that at 2:30 when we’re in practice. It’s something this team battles,” he said. “This team has just got this comfort zone that’s hard to get out of. There’s a wall that’s very difficult for this team to break through. I guess we’ve climbed over it a few times and then we’ve climbed back to the other side where it’s a little bit easier.”
After a brutal final 10 minutes at Georgia (72-60 loss) and a similarly discouraging finish at home against Alabama (68-50) last week, the Gators returned to practice with a very simple directive earlier this week.
“It was just to compete,” guard Jalen Hudson said. “We haven’t been competing at the highest level. Every night you’ve got to show up in the SEC. It’s one of the hardest conferences in basketball. So, the message all practice all week long was just to compete.”
Hudson led that charge Wednesday night with 18 points and 9 rebounds, while Keith Stone added 15 points and Egor Koulechov chipped in 12.
After trailing by as many as 9 points early, the Gators (16-8 overall, 7-4 SEC) went into halftime down 33-31 before quickly taking control after the break.
A 10-0 run early in the second half, fueled by 8 points from Koulechov, pushed the Florida lead to 48-36 before the game tightened up again down the stretch.
A dunk by LSU’s Brandon Sampson gave the visitors a 59-58 lead with just less than 7 minutes to play, but Stone followed on the next possession with two free throws to push the Gators back ahead.
A 3-pointer from Tigers freshman standout Tremont Waters gave LSU a 61-60 lead, but Hudson immediately followed with a jumper for the Gators and they never trailed again.
There would be no late collapse this time — quite the opposite.
KeVaughn Allen followed with a jumper and free throw and Hudson drained a 3 to quickly push the lead back to 7. Hudson later helped put the game out of reach with a tough layup and free throw with 1 minute, 15 seconds remaining to make it a 73-64 lead.
“They hit some really big shots, and we didn’t want to lose our head, lose our focus or take really tough shots and build their fire,” Hudson said. “So, we were just trying to play for us, play together, move the ball, make them guard for a little bit. They had a lot of guys play a lot of big minutes; we knew they were tired, so we just tried to share it and continue to play hard.”
The game-high 18 points marked the most for the junior guard since scoring 21 against Arkansas on Jan. 17.
“That’s as hard as he’s played in any game or any practice,” White said, praising Hudson’s performance on both sides of the ball.
LSU coach Will Wade, meanwhile, singled out the defense of Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza as a key factor in the outcome.
“I bet he guarded 75-80 percent of our ball screens tonight. He ended up switching onto whomever was on there, that’s what really bothered us,” Wade said. “Your body takes a beating when you’re guarding all those ball screens. … That’s just a warrior senior that wants to get it right and get it turned around.”
While Florida had combined crumbling defense and ice-cold offense in the second half of its last two losses, this time the Gators shot 57.1 percent after halftime and held LSU to 40 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes.
But it was just one game from a team that has proven especially unpredictable.
The Gators have seven regular-season games left to put this season back on the track it seemed to be on a few weeks ago.
“We’ve got to build on that. We don’t want to celebrate this. We want to keep our edge, keep the fire that we’re playing with,” Hudson said. “At the end of the day it’s only one win, so you’ve got to just sustain that and we’ve got to bring that every day in practice.”
Said White: “I hope they take advantage of some added confidence and buy in in terms of playing with that type of identity. I think if we play that hard and that together every night, we’ll have a chance every night. … We just looked like more of a mature, connected group.”
NOTES: Freshman guard Mike Okauru played 17 minutes off the bench, his most since Jan. 10. He took advantage while hitting 4 of 7 shots for 9 points. …
Allen came off the bench for the just the second time this season, with guards Hudson, Koulechov, Chiozza, forward Stone and center Kevarrius Hayes starting. White explained it was a minor disciplinary matter.
“KeVaughn was a couple minutes late to shoot-around. He was actually doing academic work, but it wasn’t communicated so it’s not like he was being defiant. He’s so far from defiant,” White said. “He just happened to be a couple minutes late and we know the deal.”