Free throws fall, Gators secure road win

After collapsing late because of free throws struggles in a loss to Connecticut, Florida made its free throws this time to open Southeastern Conference play with a win on the road.

With a six-point lead and 43 seconds left to play, the Gators were put in a familiar position. They had to make free throws to escape with a win, something they couldn’t do against the Huskies on Saturday. Florida went 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the last 43 seconds on Tuesday night against South Carolina, finishing off a 72-68 win over the Gamecocks.

The first six free throws should have been enough to clinch it but freshman point guard Chris Chiozza fouled Tyrone Johnson, who made the layup in the process, and completed the three-point play. That cut the Florida lead to two points with seven seconds left, and Florida guard Eli Carter hit two free throws with six seconds left, pushing the lead to four points and eliminating any chance of a South Carolina comeback.

“They’re a really good free throw shooting team, and we have not been,” Billy Donovan said on the postgame radio show. “It was good to see. Eli Carter, Frazier, Doe-Doe and Jake Kurtz did a real nice job coming down the stretch shooting the ball.”

The win was Florida’s seventh straight over the Gamecocks and 14th in the last 17 meetings.

With the game tied at 44 and 11:22 left to play, big man Laimonas Chatkevicius, lbowed Florida forward Jacob Kurtz in the face and received a flagrant one. Kurtz hit the two free throws, and Dorian Finney-Smith hit a three-pointer to complete a five-point possession and give the Gators the lead for the final time.

Finney-Smith ended the game with 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block. Michael Frazier, who scored 17 points and responded after he started the game on the bench, complimented him. They were the only two on the roster in double figures, but the Gators did have six players between four and nine points.

Frazier was struggling coming into Wednesday night and coming off the bench provided the spark he needed.

“He had some really good minutes, and I was proud of Michael for the way he responded. It’s sometimes hard when you’re a coach and dealing with a great kid like Michael Frazier. He has been a major contributor. When you see somebody not in the right place mentally and trying to be something else, you try to have conversations and talk. When it’s not getting through and there’s not the change that’s necessary, you have to do something with playing time.

“I give Michael a lot of credit from a maturity-standpoint to keep his head in the game, stayed focused and come off the bench to be ready to play. He gave us some really good minutes. I was proud of him and he’s got to get back to who he is.”

In recent years, a win over South Carolina wouldn’t have meant much. However, Frank Martin has turned the program around in year three and the Gamecocks brought a 9-3 record and seven-game winning streak into Wednesday night. It’s a tough team that makes opponents play sloppy -- and Florida did with 17 turnovers -- but Donovan was happy his team was able to overcome that and get the win to start conference play. The Gators outrebounded South Carolina 37-23, and Gamecocks head coach Frank Martin told The State newspaper in Columbia after the game that he has never been around a team that got beat on the glass like they did on Wednesday.

The Gators also did it without center Jon Horford and walk-on Zach Hodskins. The two were suspended for conduct detrimental to the team, and Donovan said he would review their situations after returning to Gainesville and decide whether or not they will play on Saturday against Mississippi State. The Gators hos the Bulldogs at 7 p.m. in the first home conference game of the season.

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