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Florida 81, South Carolina 68: Andrew Nembhard leads Gators to win in Columbia

Florida’s sophomore point guard controlled the game — and won it late.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators have had all sorts of problems with South Carolina in recent years, struggling to keep the defensive-minded Gamecocks from flummoxing them with physical play and surprising shooting.

But they haven’t had Andrew Nembhard for all of those games.

And Nembhard made sure the Gators would have this win.

Florida’s sophomore point guard had his second straight 20-point outing and second career 20-point double-double, posting 21 points and 10 assists, and made the Gators go down the stretch, helping them pull away for an 81-68 win at Colonial Life Arena.

Nembhard’s steady hand was especially helpful on a night when South Carolina’s shooting — and unusual proficiency at the line — kept the Gamecocks in a game that Florida had the upper hand in for most of the run of play. The Gamecocks made two threes and scored 15 points in the first five minutes of play and made 18 of their first 21 free throws, taking a four-point lead on their second three-point play of the first seven minutes.

But Florida scrapped back with offensive boards in the first half — Omar Payne had four by halftime — and built a lead that South Carolina had to execute a 4-0 run to cut to three at the break.

And after halftime, Florida was able to reintegrate Kerry Blackshear, who sat for much of the first half with two fouls, and get consistent scoring from Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson. Blackshear would make just two shots on the evening, but scored 11 points by adding seven points at the foul stripe, and Johnson’s 19 points (and eight rebounds) were significant, with Nembhard finding him repeatedly in the second half.

When Florida absolutely needed big shots in the final four minutes, though, it was Nembhard who provided them — first, on a spectacular bit of one-man work that featured a back-down move beyond the arc and a drive to a spot 15 feet out that allowed him to take and make one of his favored fadeaways, and then on a three drilled from the left wing to put Florida up by nine.

Florida got other big contributions on this night — Payne and Scottie Lewis (15 points, nine rebounds) were all over the place on both ends, with Lewis also stroking a three for his third straight appearance — but this was a third straight reminder that this is ultimately Andrew Nembhard’s team to lead and pilot, following his 25-point night against Alabama and 13-assist showing in a rout of Long Beach State.

And on this night, we again saw why that team can still soar with him at the sticks.