The Florida Gators streaked from the gate to a 40-20 halftime lead against Vanderbilt on Saturday, playing inspired defense and finally getting KeVaughn Allen untracked in the 2017-18 season.
The second half? Not nearly as heartening.
But it still featured the Gators on top at the end.
Florida withstood a barrage of Vanderbilt threes and got clutch play from Chris Chiozza and icy-nerved free throws from nearly its enitre roster, holding on down the stretch for a 81-74 win over the Commodores that gives Florida coach Mike White a win over every other SEC school in just his third season helming the Gators.
Egor Koulechov (22 points, 10-for-10 at the line), Allen (16 points, 6-for-6 at the line), and Chiozza (17 points, including a significant layup late to extend Florida’s lead beyond five points for good) paced the Gators on offense, helping to compensate for Jalen Hudson’s (eight points) clear limitations while playing through sickness and foul trouble for Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone that limited both bigs in the second half.
It was that foul trouble — and Florida’s lack of trouble converting at the line — that helped make the game a tale of two halves.
Without Hayes (four blocks and a few other altered shots) and Stone (three blocks) to anchor Florida underneath for much of the second stanza, Vanderbilt found success driving the ball that was squelched over the first 20 minutes. And that success led Florida to switch to a zone defense that Vandy bombarded for 12 threes and still drove effectively on for much of the afternoon.
Florida responded by driving and drawing fouls — 24 of them on the afternoon, and enough to get into the bonus before the second half was half over. The Gators earned 30 free throws from those fouls, and sank 27 of them, scoring fully a third of their points on the day at the line.
And on a day when misses from the charity stripe down the stretch would have allowed Vanderbilt to erase Florida’s lead with big swipes rather than the whittling of trading threes for two-point trips, every one of those was crucial.
The other one the Gators got as a result — a 1-0 record in SEC play — is proof that this team can win even without its best game when it at least plays a good one.