10 at the under-four. Five with 2:09 left. Three with 1:08 to go. Three with 30 seconds to go and the ball in Xavier’s hands.
But that lead would get no smaller, as Paul Scruggs missed an open shot and Kerry Blackshear Jr. came away with the night’s most important rebound. Blackshear would hit both free throws immediately afterward. Florida would win, 70-65.
And the hallmarks of the losses of yesteryear would preface this team’s biggest win thus far — one with lots of good to build on, and yet only just enough to outweigh the bad.
Blackshear was, yet again, the biggest difference for this year’s team, posting his fifth double-double (14 points and 10 rebounds) in as many full games and weathering a poor start to be a steady presence all night.
But Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke shooting well at the same time — at one point, the pair had made six of their seven threes attempted — was the biggest reason that Florida pulled away at the end of the first half on a 20-8 run. The Gators sophomores finished with a combined 28 points, with Nembhard dishing four assists and Locke recording four steals.
Scottie Lewis playing disruptive defense and Keyontae Johnson playing his brand of indomitable offense helped, too. Lewis had just four points, but recorded two steals and a show-stopping chasedown block, and generally flew around on the end of the floor where his athleticism gives him great comfort; Johnson, by contrast, looked to be in full control of his assortment of drives and moves, scoring 15 points on 10 shots even without the benefit of a made three.
And Ques Glover sparked Florida when Nembhard sat, his scoring (nine points) once again making up for a flurry of turnovers (four this night).
Florida couldn’t put away this game Xavier team, though, with a 13-2 run forcing Florida to rip off its own 10-3 spurt midway through the second half. And despite that 10-point lead at the under-four timeout, it felt as though the Musketeers would make one final charge — something that they did via two Quentin Goodin threes, and with the aid of a Florida offense that sputtered to the finish line, producing no makes from the field in the final 6:24 of play.
In the end, the Gators needed Xavier to miss to win this one, something that will provide Mike White with another data point about slowing down the game late and a teachable moment to work on over weeks that will likely feature slightly less pressure and scrutiny than the Gators were facing at this time last Sunday in the wake of a loss at UConn.
But in the end, the Gators did win, dropping a ranked team and finishing off an unbeaten run in Charleston that looked like a team beginning to find itself.
There is much more growing for these Gators to do. But now they can check their charts to see proof of growth that has already happened.