NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Florida’s defense shut down the University of Arkansas basketball team.
The Gators beat the Razorbacks 66-50 on Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in the SEC Tournament opener for both teams.
It was Arkansas’ lowest-scoring game of the season. The previous low was Florida’s 57-51 victory over the Razorbacks in Walton Arena on Jan. 9.
“We pride ourselves on defense,” said Florida guard KeVaughn Allen, a senior from North Little Rock who scored 17 points. “I think we went out there just knowing personnel, kind of what each player wanted to do.
“We just played hard and stuck together.”
Arkansas (17-15) jumped out to a 17-9 lead, but struggled to string together good possessions on offense the rest of the game.
“They just wanted it more than we did,” said Razorbacks freshman guard Isaiah Joe, who scored 12 points but was 3 of 11 from the field. “They came out with a lot of intensity and a lot of aggression, and we didn’t match it. Normally we’ll go on a run, but we couldn’t get anything going.”
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson credited Florida with controlling the tempo and slowing down the Razorbacks.
“Like Coach A always says, offense starts with defense, but we couldn’t even get a rebound,” Joe said when asked why Arkansas couldn’t force a faster tempo. “If we’d been able to get more rebounds and push it on the fast break, that would have helped a lot. We were lacking on that. We weren’t able to get the ball pushed.”
Florida (18-14) outrebounded Arkansas 41-26, including 19-9 on the offensive boards. The Gators, who shot 38.2 percent from the field (21 of 55), rebounded 55.9 percent of their 34 misses.
“I thought it came down to the offensive rebounding,” Anderson said. “They shot it, went and got it. I think that was the difference in the game there. We didn’t do a good job of putting bodies on them.”
The Gators outscored the Razorbacks 18-6 in second-chance points.
Freshman forward Keyontae Johnson led Florida with 20 points and 12 rebounds — including 6 offensive rebounds — but Gators coach Mike White pointed to senior forward Kevarrius Hayes as the team’s catalyst. Hayes had 8 points and 7 rebounds, including 4 offensive rebounds.
“Kevarrius Hayes’ energy spreads,” White said. “He sets the tone with his motor.”
Sophomore forward Daniel Gafford led the Razorbacks with 15 points and six rebounds.
“The reason they were getting offensive rebounds is because we were playing soft inside,” Gafford said. “We weren’t boxing out. They kept coming up with the long boards and short ones.
“Hayes, he’s a good player. But stepping up to this type of atmosphere, I’ve got to come out and play stronger than what I did. I’ve got to protect the paint. I’ve got to do better on my part.”
Six Gators had at least four rebounds.
“They were just beating us to the ball,” Joe said. “We weren’t getting our bodies in there. They’re a real aggressive team. We knew they were going to crash the boards going into the game. We didn’t adjust to it.”
Arkansas tied the game 30-30 on Gafford’s bank shot with 19:11 left. Then Florida took the lead for good, 31-30 at the 18:02 mark, on freshman guard Andrew Nembhard’s free throw.
The Gators couldn’t push their lead past six points until they closed on a 12-2 run over the final 4:32 that was started by Allen’s driving basket.
“The game was still right there in the balance with a little bit more than three minutes to go,” Anderson said. “They made plays. Some of the veteran guys made plays, some of the young guys made plays.
“That means survive. We didn’t survive.”
The Razorbacks — who are hoping for an NIT bid — missed their last seven shots, and they scored their last six points when Gabe Osabuohien, Desi Sills and Joe each hit 2 of 2 free throws.
“It was just one of the games where we couldn’t make shots when we needed them,” said Arkansas sophomore guard Mason Jones, who scored seven points. “Plus Florida did a great job rebounding. So props to them.”
Arkansas shot 50 percent from the field (11 of 22) in the first half, but Florida led 30-28 despite shooting 37.5 percent (12 of 32) thanks to 10 offensive rebounds.
“The second half, they got a little more physical with our guys,” Anderson said. “That sometimes can cause frustration.”
Arkansas shot 25 percent from the field (6 of 24) while scoring 22 points in the second half.
“I mean, I feel like we could have gotten anything that we wanted,” Gafford said of the offensive struggles. “We couldn’t execute. We shot ourselves in the foot down the stretch. We couldn’t get the shots that we took to fall. Some of the shots, we settled for most of the time.”
White said he couldn’t give a specific reason why Florida’s defense has been so effective in two games against Arkansas, but the Gators had extra motivation because of losses prior to the Arkansas games.
Florida came into Walton Arena after being upset at home by South Carolina 71-69. The Gators lost three consecutive games to end the regular season and needed to beat Arkansas on Thursday to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
“We weren’t playing well earlier in the year, and really needed one at Bud Walton,” White said. “I thought we were really dialed in. Of course, today, having lost three in a row, I thought we were really dialed in.
“I’m not sure it has as much to do with the matchup as it was leading into both games with our mentality, where we were in the context of the season.”
Arkansas had won three consecutive games to end the regular season.
“To come on this stage and not play as well as we’ve been playing is very disappointing,” Anderson said. “But it’s not because our guys didn’t leave it all out there on the floor.
“It’s just a tough, tough loss.”