Home is where the heart is. It’s also the place where the rims are softer and the same shots that you miss on the road find their way into the net.
For Florida Tuesday night, it was the place where the Gators hit better than 50% of their shots from the field (26-51) and a rather impressive 83.3% (30-36) from the foul line. They needed every one of those shots to go down because Arkansas (11-11, 4-5 SEC) refused to go away quietly. Down by 12 (74-62) with 4:20 to go in the game, the Razorbacks heated up from the 3-point line in a hurry to turn a potential blowout loss into a white knuckles affair. While the Razorbacks were hitting four long range bombs in the final 1:20, the Gators were steady at the foul line, knocking down seven of their final eight free throws to hold off Arkansas, 87-73, before a crowd of 9,013 at the O-Dome.
“We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now and some of it is just playing in front of our own people, playing in the O-Dome,” White said after the Gators won their fifth game in the last six to push their record to 15-7 overall, 6-3 in the SEC. The Gators are 11-1 this season at home.
It was only a week ago that the Gators struggled on the road, hitting only 32.9% from the field and only 6-10 from the foul line in a 1-point loss to Vanderbilt in Nashville. That was similar in so many ways to the Gators’ 71-68 loss to Texas A&M in College Station where they shot 27-61 from the field and 4-12 from the line.
The Gators had no such problems Tuesday night although there at the end the Razorbacks caught fire and made the last two minutes into the kind of game UF would have lost not all that long ago.
“We’re way more of a confident team than we were early on in the season when we were squeaking out games against those mid-major teams where we’re walking around kind of looking at each other wondering who’s going to step up and make a play,” White said. “We’ve got 5-6 guys right now that we feel are capable of making those kind of plays.”
Five Gators scored in double figures Tuesday but once again it was Dorian Finney-Smith who led the way with 22 points, 9 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 steals. Since the Gators lost to the Aggies, Finney-Smith has assumed a take charge role and has morphed into one of the four or five best players in the SEC. He’s averaging 19.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in Florida’s last seven games hitting a torrid 44-75 from the field, 19-36 from the 3-point line and 29-36 from the foul line.
Against Arkansas, Finney-Smith went 8-12 from the field while hitting 2-5 from the 3-point line and 4-4 from the foul line. White indicated that Finney-Smith’s play has been contagious to the rest of the team.
“Some of it is probably the way Dorian is playing,” White said. “He’s leading us as a fifth year senior.”
Early on, it was the Finney-Smith show that got the Gators off to an early lead. By scoring 14 of Florida’s first 22 points, Finney-Smith got the Gators out to a 22-14 lead at the 9:39 mark of the first half. Florida’s lead stretched to 9 (35-26) on a 3-pointer from the right wing by Justin Leon with 5:19 left in the half, but the offense went into the deep freeze the rest of the way. The Gators managed only four free throws in the final five minutes while Arkansas chipped away and tied the game at 37-37 on a 3-pointer by Anthlon Bell with 1:59 left in the half. It took a pair of John Egbun free throws to break the tie with 59.8 seconds left to send the Gators into the halftime locker with a 39-37 lead.
Egbunu didn’t start the game for disciplinary reasons and only came off the bench at the 5:45 mark of the first half, but he made an impact the rest of the way with 14 points, 4 rebounds and a steal.
White sat Egbunu for not giving his best effort in practice, but liked the way his redshirt sophomore center responded.
“It wasn’t his best week but I thought he responded with maturity and helped this team win,” White said. “It was one of his better games … I thought he played with a lot of poise there when he was doubled.”
The Gators just couldn’t lose Arkansas in the first 10 minutes of the second half, but they went on a 12-5 run to push the lead out to 12 (72-60). When Egbunu dunked off a Chris Chiozza pass with 5:04 left, the Gators held a 70-60 lead but that was the last time UF scored from the field until Chiozza connected with Devin Robinson for an alley-oop dunk with 49.8 to go that gave UF an 82-75 lead. In between, the Gators had some anxious moments from the foul line, hitting only 4-8 on four consecutive trips to the line.
It was enough to keep UF in front, but not enough to put Arkansas away. After Egbunu went 1-2 from the line with 1:26 to go and Robinson hammered home the alley-oop, the Razorbacks went white hot from beyond the arc, nailing four straight 3-pointers to whittle away at Florida’s lead.
In the final minute, the Gators hit 7-8 from the line but it was that one miss that gave Arkansas some breathing room. Chiozza went 1-2 from the line with 12.2 seconds left but Anthlon Bell (24 points on the night, 4-5 from the 3-point line) drilled another 3-ball with 6.5 seconds to go to make it an 85-83 game. The Gators were bailed out by KeVaughn Allen, who knocked down both free throws after he was fouled on the subsequent inbounds play to provide the final 4-point margin.
White could only shake his head when reliving the final minute.
“In the last minute of the game I feel like I aged a year,” White said. “They would not go away. They were incredible offensively.”
Said Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, “Our guys didn’t go away and they still gave themselves a chance. I give Florida credit for going up to the free throw line and knocking them down. I didn’t think they shot a lot tonight, but they shot great. They shot and on top of that they made them. That was the big difference in the game tonight.”
GAME NOTES: The Gators hit their first 16 free throws before Kasey Hill had the first miss with 9:51 to go ... Besides Finney-Smith and Egbunu, the Gators got double figures scoring from Chiozza (17 points, 2 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals), Hill (11 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocked shots, 2 steals) and 10 from Allen (10 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals) … Arkansas hit 10-21 from the 3-point line and outrebounded the Gators, 37-32. Beside Bell, the Razorbacks got 20 points from Dusty Hannahs, 15 from center Moses Kingsley and 10 from Jabril Durham … Florida’s next game is Saturday at Kentucky while Arkansas is home against Tennessee.