Nearly from the opening tip, the Florida Gators appeared to have and hold the upper hand against the LSU Tigers on Wednesday night. Florida would lead for nearly 30 minutes of game clock; LSU would lead for just over six.
But the Gators had to fight so hard to get that advantage, grinding out possessions against a talented, long, and deep squad playing before its home crowd and seemingly doing so without fouling at all, that it would have been understandable, even forgivable, had the Gators broken by the end, or fallen short of their finest win of the season.
Except they didn’t.
Florida fought to overtime and then got a brilliant showing from KeVaughn Allen in the extra session, ultimately scoring an 82-77 win over No. 13 LSU that could be the win that gets the Gators into the NCAA Tournament field.
Allen finished with 21 points to lead all scorers, a feat and a half considering his failure to score in the first half. But he warmed up late after limiting his shots to three misses — including Florida’s first and next-to-last ones — in the first half, making five of the seven threes he took after halftime, and scored 12 points in overtime.
That helped atone for an indecisive final possession of regulation, on which he split the LSU defense but passed too late to a poorly-positioned Kevarrius Hayes, leading to a shot-clock violation.
But LSU’s Tremont Waters — who, like Allen, came to life late after a dismal showing for much of the night — could not hit his pull-up 30-footer at the horn, and so the Gators and Tigers went to the extra period tied at 64-64.
Overtime began evenly, too, and was tied at 70-70. But then Allen made consecutive threes — sandwiched around a brilliant play to rip the ball away from hulking Tigers big Naz Reid and a clutch offensive rebound by Noah Locke — and gave the Gators enough room to hold on down the stretch despite a three-point play from Skyler Mays and a Waters three in the final minute.
When yet another Waters three — on a steal that resulted from doubling Allen — clanged off front iron and finally turned into an offensive board for Keyontae Johnson, Florida had secured a truly substantial win, one that is now pinned to the top of its NCAA Tournament sheet.
It took a Herculean effort from nearly every Gator suited up.
Allen’s late flurry was big, yes — but so were Johnson’s seven points, six boards, and two assists, and Andrew Nembhard’s eight points, eight dimes, and three steals, and Locke’s 15 points and five boards on a night when his nagging hip injury was clearly bothering him, and Jalen Hudson’s 15 points off the bench, and Hayes finishing with 10 points, seven boards, and two big blocks.
Florida had to hit 11 threes and 11 of its 13 free throws to compensate for LSU getting all five starters into double figures and shooting 12 more free throws on the night. (That LSU made it to overtime in a physical contest without Florida even being in the bonus is one of the bigger head-scratchers of a season full of iffy officiating.) Florida had to chase down 15 offensive rebounds of its own to mitigate LSU capturing 19, with Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams combining for 10 of them.
But it all came together for the Gators, who came close to losing their grip on a game they clearly very dearly wanted to have. The fingers closed; the fist formed.
And Florida walked out of a bout with something to hold high.