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Florida 76, LSU 73: Gators vanquish Tigers behind Andrew Nembhard game-winner

Florida played a thrilling capper to its trilogy of classics against LSU. And the Gators won, too.

SEC Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Florida Gators are going to be dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

And for some portion of the next 24 hours, they might be walking on air.

How else is there to feel, after Florida rallied from three separate 13-point deficits and got a thrilling last-second three from Andrew Nembhard to knock off SEC champion LSU in the SEC Tournament quarterfinal that served as the conclusion to a classic trilogy of close games between the teams this year?

What Florida had to do to get there was almost as impressive as Nembhard draining his third three of the day to cap a 20-point performance.

The Gators looked largely outmatched by LSU, and especially its formidable front line, for most of the first half. LSU bolted to 5-0 and 22-9 leads, with Naz Reid leading an assault that included four dunks over the Tigers’ first five makes. Florida would scrap for much of the rest of the half, but still trailed 35-25 at halftime.

And despite emerging from halftime and getting three consecutive stops, Florida would trail 42-29 early on in the second half.

Then Nembhard hit his first three, beginning a slow-motion 18-6 run that would shave LSU’s lead to just one point, and begin an ultra-competitive final stretch of play that looked a whole lot like long stretches of the first two games between these teams this year. Neither team would lead by more than five points from the 12:00 mark onward, and LSU’s five-point lead lasted a mere 19 seconds, with Nembhard’s second three at the 8:08 mark shortening the game to nothing more than three-point margins from there on in.

And Florida got the good fortune of a dubious call — one of scores by SEC referees this season — to flip a three-point deficit into a three-point lead with just over four minutes to play. Keyontae Johnson sank a three — one of many contributions on a 16-point, 10-rebound, four-assist day — as Reid was whistled for bowling over Florida screener Kevarrius Hayes, and the refs considering that foul contemporaneous with the shot gave the Gators a chance to take the lead at the line — which, in turn, incensed LSU acting head coach Tony Benford enough to earn a technical foul for voicing his displeasure.

KeVaughn Allen calmly knocked down the two technical free throws, and Hayes followed by splitting his, giving the Gators an effective six-point play.

But LSU was not about to concede anything, and immediately spurted back into the lead with a 4-0 run. And two more Florida spurts to go up three — at 70-67 and 73-70, after a Nembhard take and a Hayes jumper and two free throws by Allen after ripping away a rebound from a Tiger (which itself came after Hudson dove on a ball Tremont Waters inexplicably rolled past halfcourt, only to get a tie-up for his heads-up play) — only got the Gators in position for two more game-tying threes by Reid, whose 26 points and 14 rebounds might understate his impact on this game.

So the game would, once again, come down to Florida’s final possession, as it did in the Gators’ loss to the Tigers in Gainesville on multiple occasions. The first one of those ended with a Hudson three; the second saw Allen fail to get up a potential game-winner after a scramble.

This one would have both, as Florida’s intent to drive and look for a foul was dashed by an LSU audible to a 1-3-1 zone that landed the ball in Johnson’s hands in the corner.

But Florida’s best freshman over the last two days drove and then kicked out to Florida’s best freshman, period — and he hit a three that secured Florida passage to the SEC Tournament semifinals, and will lift the Gators from near the NCAA Tournament cut line to a spot safely within the field of 68.

On this, the most important day of this most trying season for Florida, two freshmen and three seniors made big plays when they needed to, something they have been trying to do all year.

Making that happen feels a lot better than not doing so.

And so will getting to watch this team finish its fight in March Madness — and do more fighting this weekend in Nashville.