The Florida Gators held a 16-point lead with under eight minutes to play at Bud Walton Arena on Wednesday night.
You can probably guess how that lead dwindled to just two points with under a minute to play in Fayetteville against the Arkansas Razorbacks.
But this game would not slip from the Gators’ hands.
Florida played its best defense of the night against explosive Arkansas guard Mason Jones on the most important possession of the game, and got four clutch free throws from Natural State native KeVaughn Allen in the final 12 seconds of a 57-51 win that felt like survival — after often looking like a rout.
Allen paced the Gators with 18 points despite a 3-for-11 performance from the field, sinking 11 of his 12 free throws to give him more points from the charity stripe than any other Gator had total. Noah Locke was the only Gator to drill two threes and the only other one in double figures, finishing with 10 points.
But Florida still controlled the game, playing miserly defense against an Arkansas team that clearly wanted to run its offense through Daniel Gafford and just as clearly could not do so against Florida’s assortment of schemes and disciplined doubling. Gafford finished with nine points, failing to hit double figures for the first time in a brilliant sophomore season that has him in line to be a first-team All-SEC player, and Arkansas committed 16 turnovers, more than a few of them as a result of trying too hard to feed Gafford.
Jones would pick up much of the slack for the Hogs, bombing away for four threes and sinking 12 of his own 13 free throws for a healthy 30 points to lead all scorers. But he could not get a good look on an early shot with Arkansas down two with under 30 seconds to play, instead throwing up a fallaway leaner driving to his right that caught iron.
Arkansas got the immediate offensive board off that miss, but Adrio Bailey threw up a difficult shot from under the backboard that had no chance, and Florida chased down the loose ball — with a key save by Kevarrius Hayes keeping it in bounds — and eventually got it to Allen, whose sure shooting restored the Gators’ hold on the game.
After a 15-2 run by Arkansas — in which Florida’s only points, naturally, came from a long two by Jalen Hudson? — the Gators could have lost that grip entirely, and seen a season that still seems destined for the NCAA Tournament bubble dim even more than it did last Saturday against South Carolina.
They didn’t. And now they face their tallest test this season, a home date against Tennessee on Saturday with the knowledge that they can hold on in a game like this.