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Florida 73, Arkansas 59: Gators fend off feisty Hogs to hold serve

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Keyontae Johnson and Andrew Nembhard combined for 41 points and powered the Gators through a critical second-half stretch.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is a game of runs, as the Florida Gators and Arkansas Razorbacks helpfully demonstrated on Tuesday night.

Florida 30, Arkansas 11. Then Florida 33, Arkansas 26. Then Florida 42, Arkansas 40. Then Florida 66, Arkansas 52.

And then, finally: Florida 73, Arkansas 59.

The Gators started hot. Noah Locke made his first three threes to finish a white-hot span of 14 makes in 21 tries, and a Florida bench pressed into earlier minutes than usual had seven straight points from three different scorers to build that 19-point lead.

But early foul trouble that kept Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Keyontae Johnson largely pine-planted in the first half would catch up to the Gators late in the half, as Arkansas began to exploit the slower-footed Jason Jitoboh inside and get points from a Mason Jones-Adrio Bailey outside-inside attack.

And Arkansas would continue closing the gap early on in the second half, with a truly ridiculous technical foul on Locke — the wrong culprit — for teaming with Johnson to push Bailey out of a Florida huddle helping the Hogs get within one possession...

...and a 7-1 run undoing a bit of work by Florida to rebuild its lead.

The fourth distinct stretch of this game featured both teams trading baskets — four makes each — to get the score to 52-48, Florida.

But the fifth would be telling. And it belonged to the Gators.

Their 14-4 run to get clear of single digits for good was almost entirely powered on offense by Andrew Nembhard and Johnson, who had six and eight of the 14 points, respectively, polishing off big nights — 17 points, seven boards, and four assists for Nembhard, and a 24-point, 10-rebound double-double for Johnson. On defense, the Gators locked in, giving up no points over a 3:29 stretch in which Arkansas took two shots and committed two turnovers.

The only compelling part of the last four minutes of play? Scottie Lewis once again proving to be a world-class athlete who happens to hoop.

But the win, for Florida, is a last bit of holding serve through a softer stretch of SEC play in which Arkansas was arguably its toughest foe. Since blowing a lead to Mississippi State in late January, the Gators are 5-1, and have momentarily seized third place in the SEC.

A finish that features two games with conference leader Kentucky and one with co-second place LSU will determine whether the Gators rise or fall from here.

For now, they have placed themselves in position to sprint down the stretch.