Joshua Lindsey / USA TODAY Sports

Gators with hard fought 68-61 win over Hogs

The Arkansas Razorbacks (16-16) just wouldn’t go away, but an 11 point lead that Florida (19-13) built in the middle of the second half was enough to completely halt any comeback attempt for the Razorbacks and the Gators would finish with a hard fought 68-61 win in the Gators first game of the SEC Tournament.

A tough game from injured center John Egbunu who tore the ligament in his right thumb two days before the tournament, along with a terrific 18 point, 5 assist, and 3 turnover game from reserve point guard Kasey Hill propelled the Gators to the second round of the tournament held in Nashville.

Florida thought they were going to have it tough inside with the injury to Egbunu. But the big man concentrated on doing the things he could do to help his team win. Playing in great pain Egbunu scored eight points, pulled down nine rebounds and was constantly making tips and little plays that allowed his team to keep or get the ball. He played an amazing 24 minutes of the game and was a big reason one of Arkansas’ big men fouled out and the other played in foul trouble for a lot of the game.

White was excited and proud of his sophomore big man.

“Unbelievable,” the head coach said when asked what he thought of Egbunu’s play.  “I'm not shocked, but I'm really surprised that he played that well. He's still young in his career. He's a sophomore. He's come a long way with his maturity and his toughness. After the injury, a couple nights ago in practice, Duke (team trainer), who we all know does a phenomenal job and prepared him to give us something today. Duke and I thought, ‘I don't know what he can give us’. Maybe he can give us five minutes. Maybe he can be in there for a few defensive possessions and then we sub him out offensively because Mike was saying, I didn't know if he was going to be able to catch the ball. That was kind of his stance.

“I called John that night just to express, after he saw the doctor, sorrow, and told him to keep his head up. I said, John, it's only been two or three weeks. You've come a long way. This is part of basketball. I hate it for you, but you'll find other ways where you can help your teammates, ala Alex Murphy this year. And who knows? You might be able to play a few minutes. Who knows? He said, no, Coach, I'm playing. I'm fine. I'll find a way.

Joshua Lindsey / USA TODAY Sports
 “So he didn't bat an eye from day one, from hour one really. To be that productive, to go get six offensive rebounds, to ball screen defend the way that he did was -- it was a pretty courageous performance. Very proud of Johnny Egbunu.”

Egbunu modestly talked about what he had to do to fight through it.

“Throughout the course of the game, the pain was mild,” he said. “Apart from a few times when I dove on the floor and kind of hit it pretty bad. But apart from that, the pain was pretty mild. It was bearable.

“I just wanted to go out there and help my team the best way I could, and I'm just happy we got a win today.”

Arkansas guard Dusty Hannahs was the biggest headache for the Gators, scoring a season high 33 points in the contest as he became the go to guy down the stretch for the Hogs.

“It was a good win for us,” Florida head coach Mike White said shortly after the game. “Arkansas is a terrific team, a terrific program.

“I thought the first 20 minutes we really defended at a high level. If you take away a couple transition baskets, a couple possessions where our communication just wasn't on point, a couple turnovers, which I think led to baskets or at least good looks. Other than that, defensively, we were as good as we've been, and that's a big challenge.”

“I guess a team like Arkansas, who's as explosive as they are with two elite shooters, an all-league center, and Jabril Durham does a terrific job with making decisions with his assist to turnover ratio and his accomplishments he brings to the table. So Arkansas having won 4 of 5 coming in is one of the hotter teams in our league, it was a good win for us.”

Both teams struggled at the start offensively. The Gators were the first to hit double digits when they scored their 10th point past the 10 minute mark in the first half. While Hannahs got it going in the second half, Florida still made them earn most of their shots.  

“We did enough the second half defensively, stepped up and made a few big shots to get us that first win,” White said. “You can't do something special in a tournament like this, obviously, unless you win the first one, and we took care of business.”

Florida shot a nice 40% from three-point land for the game, but started slow. The Gators missed their first four, but continued firing away with mostly open shots and hit 8 of their next 10 three’s. White says the made threes seem to help his team on both sides of the floor.

“To see a few go in, I know it's got to feel better for our guys,” White said about a team that seems to take quality shots but not see the ball go through the basket often enough. “That's every team, but this team at times, we've -- unfortunately, we've let up with our defensive intensity, and we don't have a huge margin for error. We've got to be really, really good defensively, and to drop in intensity level and to play ten minutes where we're just somewhat engaged defensively isn't a good recipe for us.

“If (they) are falling, it helps keep us (get) energized. It helps our communication and intensity levels stay where they need to be, remain at that high level. Overall, if you look at it, Arkansas again, offensively, they are just really, really good. This was 40 pretty good minutes against a good offensive team. So I'm pleased.”
Point guard Kasey Hill may have had his best game of the year. Coming off the bench, Hill played 26 minutes and was a constant driving to the basket and either dishing to the right guy or more often than not finishing at the basket for points or drawing fouls.

“I thought he did a really good job in spread pick-and-roll and using ball screens and getting a head of steam,” White said of Hill. “He's got terrific speed, as we know. And John and Kevarrius did a good job of setting those ball screens. That was a big basket, using the other side of the rim, using the rim as another defender because Kingsley is so good at protecting the rim.

But Kasey was in a really good rhythm offensively, getting downhill, getting to the basket and making pretty good decisions. Finishing. Finishing. For him to score 18 is big for us.”

It has never been about effort for Hill, just a frustration with missing baskets at times. Wednesday was not that day.

“I was just trying to play, play aggressive, and doing whatever I had to do to help the team,” Hill said.

Florida was impressive defensively in holding the best three-point shooting percentage team in the conference to just 2-of-12 from behind the arc. The Gators had three guys with double digit scoring in the game, Hill, senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith (13 points, 9 rebounds, and freshman guard KeVaughn Allen with (11 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists).

Finney-Smith entered the second half with zero points before 3-of-11 from the field and 5-of-7 from the free throw line. He missed a large portion of the first period with foul trouble limiting his minutes to 26 for the game.

Florida takes on league regular season co-champion Texas A&M (24-7) at 1 p.m. on Friday. The Gators lost on the road to the Aggies January 12, in a 71-68 tilt that was a hard fought nice defensive game from the Gators. They held the Aggies to 36.1% shooting in the contest.  The difference in the game was the Aggies going 20-of-30 from the charity stripe while Florida was just 4-of-12.

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