Once they were considered a long shot for the NCAA Tournament. Then they were considered a safe bet. And then they were right smack on the bubble.
This has swung the pendulum that is the 2018-19 Gator basketball season. It’s been a long season for Mike White’s Gators with a lot of peaks and a lot of troughs, so it was probably a good idea for them to deliver an eleventh hour high note today in the SEC Tournament. And they did- with a 66-50 butchering of Arkansas.
As has become common, KeVaughn Allen had a lot to do with it. The senior from Little Rock delivered one final impressive performance against his home state team, dropping in 17 points along the way. Allen finishes his career 7-1 against the Razorbacks, who made a hard push for him at the end of his recruiting cycle.
But it was Keyontae Johnson who stole the show. The youngster led the team with 20 points, and more importantly, pulled down twelve boards for a team that has struggled mightily in the rebounds department.
“He’s has a few practices like that,” joked Mike White.
Maybe so. But if he can do that consistently against teams wearing unfamiliar jersey colors, the Gators may have found a bona fide weapon they can use to advance their season far beyond the point that anybody has even dreamed about this year.
Johnson was everywhere. He knocked down a hat trick of threes, the first of which came a mere 75 seconds into the game and forced Arkansas to move out to the perimeter to defend him. He quickly figured out that he wasn’t going to be stopped in the paint, either, and burned the Hogs several times on drives to the hoop. On one of the few times he missed, he promptly grabbed his own miss, took a hard foul, and then flung the ball in the air as he went down. Naturally, it went down.
But for awhile, he wasn’t getting much help and Arkansas was keeping things interesting. The Hogs actually led 17-9 midway through the first half, and though the Gators would grab the lead by halftime, Arkansas continued to hang around. Twice in the last eight and a half minutes, the Razorbacks’ Mason Jones made it a three point game, first on a straightaway three and then after a pair of Kevarrius Hayes free throws with a tip in. The latter of those buckets made it 47-44 with 7:47 to go.
Then came a strong dose of good fortune. On the ensuing Gator possession, Allen launched a three. The ball bounced high off the front of the rim, off the backboard, and, continuing to rise even higher, finally came back down to earth against the front of the rim. The ball then bounced perfectly horizontally backwards, where it met the back of the rim and then popped directly vertically back into the air about six inches. It then came down right back where it had just bounced up, decided to roll around the circumference of the rim for a little more added drama and then finally dropped through the rim for three points that the Gators desperately needed.
Pardon the possibly excessively wordy description of the shot’s flight path, but watch the play for yourself and tell me that’s not exactly how you would describe it.
Maybe this is just Florida’s day. pic.twitter.com/hGSvZDw5xu
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) March 14, 2019
The Gators’ stingy defense kept the Razorbacks off the scoreboard for the next two and a half minutes, which was critical because Florida couldn’t score either. But Johnson finally broke the teams’ collective scoring drought by taking the ball just outside the arc, selling a subtle fake left, and driving right- right though Arkansas defense and the blue paint at Bridgestone Arena for a ridiculously easy two that seemed to break the game open. Allen followed suit moments later with a drive through the left side of the lane, and then freshman Andrew Nembhard landed the coup de grace with a corner three.
Florida finished the game on a 19-6 run, a genuinely relieving sign for a team that had made a habit of blowing enormous leads earlier this season, and has now set up a rubber match with the top seeded LSU Tigers tomorrow afternoon in the SEC Quarterfinals. At the current moment, the Gators seem to be in the NCAA Tournament, but that’s far from a guarantee; they could essentially end all uncertainty about their postseason with a win in that game tomorrow.
And that’s how it should be, because it may just be a trial run for those same play-to-keep-playing circumstances that they’ll face next week.