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Florida 78, Vanderbilt 71: Gators hold off Vanderbilt’s late explosion

The Gators played three quarters of an excellent game. Their final 10 minutes made things dicey.

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

The Florida Gators lost most of their major contributors to foul trouble, let a 22-point lead shrink to as few as four, and generally failed to close the door on a winless Vanderbilt team that visited the O’Connell Center on Wednesday night.

Their 78-71 win wasn’t the rout it could have been, nor did it take the route it looked like it would for most of the night — and it should serve as a reminder of how much the improving Gators still have to work on.

Five Gators scored in double figures, with Scottie Lewis chipping in 10 points off the bench to join four of Florida’s starters. Tre Mann, sidelined for much of the first half after two quick fouls, eventually scored 15 points to lead Florida, while Tyree Appleby and Noah Locke each had 12, the former pairing them with six assists. And Colin Castleton posted 13 points and five rebounds despite his own foul woes.

But fifth starter Omar Payne didn’t score and committed four fouls, and a bench that had 26 points on the night added just six after halftime, when Florida slowing the pace with a sizable advantage — a Castleton lay-in put the Gators up 22 with 9:52 to play — helped leave ajar a door that the Commodores furiously tried to kick down.

Scotty Pippen Jr.’s punts were especially effective, as he torched Florida for 32 points and made four of his last five shots while leading a Vandy explosion — for 36 points in that final 9:52 — that got the Gators’ lead down to just four points with 37 seconds remaining. And two huge misses from Lewis at the line gave Vandy a chance to bring a five-point down to just two.

But the last two shots of the Commodores’ night were poor takes, and so Florida survived what would have been a truly painful collapse.

It’s unlikely that West Virginia, set to host Florida in Morgantown on Saturday, would be nearly as kind as to blow a similar comeback attempt.