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Florida 71, Mercer 63: Gators hold on to hold off Bears

The tough Gators defense and some timely shooting from a freshman led to a Tuesday night win.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Florida vs Stanford Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators entered Tuesday night with five wins by double digits and four losses on the young season.

The Mercer Bears made sure that this would be a new experience for the Gators.

A gritty, exhausting performance by the Bears cut Florida lead after Florida lead to shorter margins, and it took a fairly good job — by Gators standards, anyway — for Florida to survive for a 71-63 win, its first by single digits this season.

Freshman Noah Locke led the Gators with 18 points, and his five threes were almost all timely ones that stabilized a Florida team that struggled to sustain success. The Gators led 8-0 early, but saw that lead entirely erased; while they led 55-42 at one stage in the second half, that advantage would dwindle all the way to a 66-61 edge in the final minute.

And that happened despite Florida putting on what was still a good defensive performance by most standards, holding Mercer to 40 percent shooting and under 30 percent shooting from distance. But the Gators have been far more suffocating this year than they were on this night, and never did put a lid on Ross Cummings (18 points) or find a way to keep the disciplined Bears from knifing to the hoop for easy buckets.

This is the plight for these Gators, who got 15 points from KeVaughn Allen — who came off the bench, as Mike White deployed Jalen Hudson as a starter for the first time in almost a month — and eight points, 11 boards, and five blocks from Kevarrius Hayes: The offense is not running as smoothly as it could be, as Andrew Nembhard adjusts to the collegiate game and Florida’s older players adjust to him, and there is no go-to option when the offense bogs down. Allen can cape up from time to time, but Florida lacks an elite scorer who can create for himself on a consistent basis, and can only do so much by asphyxiating other teams.

And when other teams thrash against that tactic — like Mercer, which refused to go gently all night — the Gators will have trouble, at a minimum.

Just 10 games into this season, it feels like the 20-plus more the Gators have this year are almost all going to be fights.

If things do not change, we will have to see how much this team has in the tank.