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Florida 61, Vanderbilt 55: Gators survive Commodores’ late push in Memorial

Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke paced the Gators in a potential blowout that ended up close.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators spent the first half of their trip to Nashville throwing slightly more rocks into the hoop than the lowly Vanderbilt Commodores could.

The second half was more familiar, as it saw the Gators run out to a lead — as usual — and then cough up much of that lead — also as usual.

The unusual part, in fact, might be that Florida survived this one, 61-55.

Keyontae Johnson led all scorers with 20 points and Noah Locke helped out with 17, but they provided more than half of Florida’s offense on a night when Florida’s other reliable hands struggled. Andrew Nembhard had just nine points on 11 shots, though he did tally four assists, and Kerry Blackshear’s six points on nine shots were compounded by a 2-for-4 performance at the line.

Similarly, Locke’s points were all critical — 15 on a season-high five threes, and two on a pair of free throws with under 20 seconds left — but he missed the front end of a one-and-one with under 15 seconds to play to give Vandy one last chance.

And while Johnson scored 20, he did manage his own split trip with 2.1 seconds remaining.

Florida defended very well for the first 30 minutes or so, and a sequence of three makes from distance by Tre Mann and Locke helped get the Gators a 49-31 lead that lasted until the 8:34 mark of the second half — when Vandy “shooter” Matthew Moyer made his second three of the night (and fifth of the season, and 18th of his career, and fifth against Florida) to end a nearly five-minute scoring drought for the Commodores.

But Vandy whittled Florida’s lead all the way down to two possessions by getting to the line, making threes, and taking advantage of scramble plays and rare Gators turnovers — Florida had just seven on the night, but four came in the final 7:40 of play — down the stretch. (Scotty Pippen Jr.’s 15 points didn’t hurt.) Locke’s made free throws and a successful defensive possession after his miss kept the lead from being cut to one possession, however, and Florida earned a second consecutive win at Memorial Gym for just the fifth time in program history.

What that’s worth this year is very little, admittedly. But for the Gators, it was a hell of a lot better than a loss would have been.