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Florida 70, Nevada 61: Gators clutch up to close out Wolf Pack in NCAA Tournament opener

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Florida watched as Nevada whittled its lead to a single possession. Then the Gators bit down.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Florida vs Nevada Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Every sign of the collapse was there.

Florida had led by 18, and seemed on the verge of running away with its first-round matchup against Nevada, until the Wolf Pack — and a flurry of whistles — wrested control of the game back from the Gators.

Florida 51, Nevada 33 turned into Florida 56, Nevada 46 after a three, a dunk, and some free throws. Florida 58, Nevada 48 turned into Florida 61, Nevada 59, after another dunk, a layup, and some more free throws. Florida couldn’t make a shot. Florida couldn’t defend without fouling. Florida couldn’t do what it had while building its lead as it tried to maintain it.

Florida was going to blow another NCAA Tournament game it had well in hand.

Only: It didn’t.

At 61-59, Kevarrius Hayes patiently worked Nevada’s Cody Martin into a foul on a two-footer. Hayes — who had 16 points on five-of-six shooting and made six of his eight free throws, but had just moments before taken a flagrant foul from Jordan Caroline’s forearm, made just one of two freebies, and biffed what would have been a spectacular finish on a lob — calmly drained both of those shots to put Florida up 63-59.

At 63-61, after two more Nevada free throws, Andrew Nembhard weaved through the Wolf Pack defense late in the clock — with Dontay Bassett throwing a sealing screen — for a layup.

At 65-61, Florida deployed a zone defense — a brilliant strategem, especially with Hayes by now having fouled out — and got a jacked three from the Wolf Pack that turned into a Bassett dunk in semi-transition at the other end, thanks to a patient drive from Keyontae Johnson.

At 67-61 — after Bassett missed an and-one free throw — Florida got another stop, and KeVaughn Allen got fouled, leading to one of two makes.

At 68-61, Florida forced another miss, and Johnson got fouled — and made both.

Florida looked for all the world like it would choke away another big lead in an NCAA Tournament game, a signature of its program under Billy Donovan.

But this team, under Mike White, finished a formidable Nevada squad with a 7-0 run over the final 2:02 of play — and its 70-61 victory was Florida’s first in an NCAA Tournament as a double-digit seed in program history.

Hayes was Florida’s leading scorer on the day, and the anchor of the defense that frustrated Nevada until which point the Wolf Pack transitioned from jacking threes to driving the ball and getting fouled. But all five Florida starters scored at least eight points, and only Nembhard — whose layup was maybe the pivotal bucket — failed to crack double figures.

And Florida buckling down when it could have careened into a ditch was a fine show of mettle from a team that has spent this entire year learning how to win games like this by trying out every way of doing so — some successful, some less so.

Florida made 17 of 22 free throws in the game, most of them late — Nembhard’s layup and Bassett’s dunk were the Gators’ only field goals of the final 8:21 — and weathered both Nevada’s attempts to rain threes, allowing just five makes on 24 tries from distance, and the bigger Wolf Pack’s interior efforts, as 19 offensive rebounds still only led to a 14-for-31 performance inside.

Winning a game down the stretch via free throws, defense, and a couple of clutch buckets? That doesn’t sound like many Florida teams of recent vintage to me, save maybe the 2013-14 team that bears few resemblances to this one.

But like every other Florida team that has entered the NCAA Tournament since 2010, this Gators squad has survived to at least the round of 32.