Consider Year One of the newly renovated O’Dome a success. Consider Arkansas a school that would like to never play another game there. And consider the Florida Gators a dangerous team come March Madness.
Canyon Barry scored 14, Kasey Hill scored 12 more, and Florida wrapped up the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament with a 78-65 defeat of the Arkansas Razorbacks on Senior Night. The win was the twelfth in succession over the Hogs in Gainesville, and means the Gators will finish the season 9-1 in Exactech Arena. More importantly, it gave us the positive sign we were hoping for after Saturday’s setback to Kentucky. The Gators had their nine game win streak snapped by the Wildcats.
But no matter. Florida simply created a new streak.
Sparked by seniors Barry and Hill, the Gators set the tone early on with an 18-4 run in the opening minutes. From then on, Florida maintained a double digit lead throughout most of the rest of the game. Arkansas kept trying to claw their way back into the game by hitting threes, but every time it felt like the Hogs had made a game of it, Florida would respond with an even bigger shot.
There was the briefest, faintest glimmer of worry when Arkansas trimmed the lead down to seven with four minutes to go. But this time, Florida’s senior leader was ready to respond to the challenge.
Up 69-61 with three minutes to play, Hill stepped up and drained a say-goodnight three ball. The shot served as a nice bit of closure for Hill, who’s had a very up and down career in Gainesville. Hill’s taken a beating from fans at times, and sometimes (not recently) I’d even argue he’s deserved it. But it’s always nice to find a happy ending in a career like that, and so I’m thrilled for him that he got it. Hill then put a bow on the evening by knocking down four straight free throws. So good for him, and good for the other seniors- Barry, Schuyler Rimmer and Justin Leon- to end their careers with a win on their home floor the last time they suited up to play on it.
The other notable takeaway from the game was the emergence of freshman Gorjak Gak. Without John Egbunu available, the Gators have been searching for a big man to step in to complement Kevarrius Hayes. This kid from Africa via Australia is still extremely raw, but showed promise in his first game back from a foot injury in the eight minutes of game action he got. Don’t discount him as a piece of the puzzle moving forward.
Now onto the big picture.
The Gators are locked in as the #2 seed in the SEC Tourney, and have all but locked up a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and the de facto home court advantage of playing their first two rounds in Orlando. It’s still too early to really say what this team is capable of in the Big Dance, but the picture is starting to become a little clearer. This is a damned good basketball team that can beat anybody when on its game, and will still have a fighting chance on an off night due to its ferocious defense.
And hopefully, the results these next few weeks will reflect either or both of those things.