Things keep rolling for Florida, all the way to a nine-game winning streak and a de facto SEC regular season championship game in Lexington this weekend.
The Gators’ offense was lethally efficient and its defense stout in their 81-66 over South Carolina on Tuesday to likely end the Gamecocks’ long-shot SEC title aspirations while seriously bolstering their own chances.
Florida did its damage offensively in some of the most productive ways possible. The Gators connected from deep and converted from the free-throw line. From distance, they were 9 of 19 (47.4 percent), and from the charity stripe, they were 22 of 27 (81.5 percent). That’s a winning formula almost every night out.
Maybe most encouraging for Florida was the return to dynamism of KeVaughn Allen. The sophomore guard had his best game in weeks, going 5 of 7 from the field – including 3 of 5 from distance – and got to the line for 14 attempts, making 13. Allen hasn’t been able to get to the free-throw line with a ton of consistency – his free-throw rate is only 23.7 – but he has shown some flashes of forcing his way there recently with 14 tonight and 10 a week ago at Auburn. If he can even approach those numbers with regularity, it’ll be a huge boon for the 87.5 percent free-throw shooter. It should be a priority for him.
The offensive outburst by Allen and the Gators at large was especially impressive coming against a South Carolina team that possesses one of the country’s stingiest defenses. The Gamecocks are typically great at making life at the 3-point arc difficult for opponents, but Florida shredded them there.
Converting from the 3-point line certainly helped cover for the absence of 6-foot-11 center John Egbunu, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last week. Devin Robinson picked up the most slack inside, blocking three shots and grabbing six rebounds, and South Carolina wasn’t really able to do much damage on the offensive glass.
With its defense taking an atypical beating, South Carolina’s offense exhibited the issues that have plagued it all season long. The Gamecocks were 3 of 14 (21.4 percent) from 3-point range, and the lack of threats along the arc shrunk their spacing and allowed Florida to harass them inside. If the offense is going to be stifled – which it probably will be more often than not with an average effective field goal percentage ranked outside the top-300 nationally – the defense has to be elite, which it was far from against Florida.
South Carolina now finds itself in a bit of a precarious, if manageable, position. The Gamecocks have lost three-straight, not something a team that is doesn’t have a 100 percent secure position in the NCAA tournament. Yes, South Carolina has a solid resume, but this is sliding in the wrong direction at the worst time. The good news is that the final three games of the regular season – vs. Tennessee, vs. Mississippi State and at Mississippi – are wholly manageable. The bad news is a stumble against any of those teams isn’t going to be looked upon with much favor by the selection committee.
The big picture for Florida is much rosier. The Gators, as noted above, are steamrolling through the final stretch of the season. They’re staking their claim to a top-three tourney seed, and will have a chance to come very close to claiming regular season SEC superiority Saturday as well.
Florida, which blasted Kentucky 88-66 earlier this month, travels to Rupp Arena to take on the No. 11 Wildcats. Both teams will be sporting 13-2 conference records (assuming Kentucky gets by/doesn’t implode at Missouri tonight) with two games left on the schedule after Saturday in which they’ll both be heavy favorites. Even if Kentucky can’t leave Columbia with a win (pause for laughter), a conference championship – whether outright or shared – will be on the line.
It might not garner the same fervor as the one played in December at the Georgia Dome, but there’s going to be a heck of an SEC title game this weekend.