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Florida 71, South Carolina 63: Gators hold Gamecocks at arm’s length

Florida needed this win in the worst way. Long arms helped secure it.

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

In their last two losses to Auburn and LSU, the Florida Gators fought gamely in the second half, slicing youth pastor leads — you know, ones that open up to the teens — down to a single point, but never got the crucial score to tie or take the lead.

On Saturday at South Carolina, the Gators figured out how to do the same thing — and how hard it is — by dominating almost all of the first half and then spending the rest of their 71-63 win fending off the Gamecocks.

Colin Castleton’s 10 points, seven rebounds, and eight blocks set the tone for the Gators, as he always does, but freshman Kowacie Reeves wore the cape for Florida on this day. Making his first start after some promising stints in recent weeks, Reeves scored a career-best 14 points to tie Phlandrous Fleming for the game high, and calmly preserved Florida’s lead down the stretch with free throws and a clutch save of a loose ball with under a minute to go and the Gamecocks within two possessions.

Reeves also hit two of his three triples, making him the most accurate Gator by three-point percentage on a day when Florida’s 7-for-22 performance was still a step up from some of their more dismal outings from distance this year. Fleming and Myreon Jones each also hit two threes, and freshman Elijah Kennedy drained one of his three tries in a shot-happy first-half cameo while Florida’s press was churning South Carolina turnovers and enabling the Gators to lead by as much as 13 points.

But when Tyree Appleby intercepted a pass and went coast-to-coast with the lead at 13, he bricked a dunk — and that seemed to breathe life into the Gamecocks, who immediately followed that miss with a three and shaved the Gators’ halftime lead to eight points with an 8-3 run to close the first half.

The second half was more of the same from South Carolina, which collected a stunning 21 offensive boards and attempted 26 more shots from the field than the Gators. Despite their early flurry of turnovers, the Gamecocks finished with just nine to Florida’s 15, and nabbed 10 steals.

But Castleton’s eight blocks were just the lion’s share and not all of 11 for Florida, and the Gamecocks had as many offensive rebounds as they did partly because of a miserable performance inside, where they made just 18 of 53 shots — and needed some exceptional accuracy on midrange attempts to get to that mark. Every Gamecock starter took at least six shots; none made more than a third of his attempts.

And though South Carolina had counterpunches for Florida throughout the second half, including a handful of contested threes, the Gators made 20 of their 27 two-pointers on the day and never let their lead dwindle under four points, effectively keeping Frank Martin’s fighters at arm’s reach in a must-win game.

For Florida, all this really buys is a single win, a 1-3 record in SEC play, and a half-step out of an early grave. But it will be a far happier trip home for the Gators than a flight that would have felt funereal after a collapse and loss — and for a team that has needed a result commensurate with its confidence to restore some belief, that matters.