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Florida 66, Vanderbilt 57: Gators outlast Commodores to secure must-have win

Florida could ill afford to take a loss on this weeknight. Try as they might, the Gators couldn’t do that.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators basically had to have Wednesday night’s game against Vanderbilt.

And though they tried equally hard to win and lose, it seemed, they did ultimately come up with a 66-57 win over the Commodores that keeps their NCAA Tournament aspirations at least on life support.

The heroes on this night were unlikely. Florida’s lone starter to crack double figures was freshman Keyontae Johnson, who equaled a career high with 15 points. And its bench had 29 points — led by Jalen Hudson’s 10 and Isaiah Stokes’s eight, all of which came in the first half — to nearly match its starting five in a game in which Andrew Nembhard and Kevarrius Hayes were in near-constant foul trouble and KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke combined for just nine points.

Despite allowing Vanderbilt to erase all of an 11-point first-half lead before intermission as Nembhard and Hayes sat, Florida took back control of the game early in the second period, staging an 8-0 run over the first five minutes of the second half and never again allowing Vandy to even tie the game despite freshman Aaron Nesmith pouring in a career-high 26 points.

And Florida made sure it would hold this game late at the free throw line, where Hudson (6-for-8), Johnson (6-for-6), and Allen (4-for-4) were steady hands. Forcing 12 turnovers — all steals — and crashing the boards for 14 offensive rebounds helped the Gators survive on a traditionally cold night of shooting that featured a 33 percent rate from the field and a woeful 22 percent rate from three.

Florida didn’t need to win emphatically nearly as badly as it emphatically needed to win — and the Gators did that, at least.

But if there are many more nights like this one against better teams than Vanderbilt — still winless in 2019 — as the Gators close out SEC play, there won’t be many nights in March when the Gators play basketball.