NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Huddled in the corner of the LSU locker room, forward Johnny O’Bryant held court, spitting out one-liners and inducing soft chuckles.
Around a corner, though, guard Anthony Hickey sought refuge near shower stalls after top-seeded and No. 13 Florida dismantled LSU in an 80-58 drubbing in the quarterfinals of the SEC men’s basketball tournament in Bridgestone Arena.
While the Tigers (19-12) tugged on warm-up pants and peeled off ankle tape, Hickey leaned forward, pressed his forehead to the wall and closed his eyes.
His purple jersey was still tightly tucked, the laces of his throwback Nikes still cinched. And Hickey’s appraisal of Florida (25-6) remained terse.
“They’re playing for something, and they sent a message,” Hickey said. “They want to be champs, and they didn’t want to have a letdown.”
Ninth-seeded LSU got caught in the Gators’ lashing, led by forward Erik Murphy’s 27 points, and endured a 13-1 run spanning halftime to snuff any bid for a comeback as UF built a 35-point lead.
“We had our blood pumping,” said guard Charles Carmouche, who led LSU with 14 points on 4-of-10 shooting. “They’re a veteran team. They didn’t use that as an excuse. They came out and played and did what they’ve been doing all year.”
That focus clicked in with LSU trailing 18-17 and 9:53 left in the first half. Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin, who finished with 16 points on 6-of-8 shooting, knocked down a pull-up jumper from the left wing as Florida asserted control. The Gators, who shot 50.9 percent, efficiently wielded a scalpel over the next five minutes during a 12-2 run to stretch its lead to 30-19 with 5:18 until halftime.
Meanwhile, LSU, which shot 33.3 percent, slogged through a scoring drought of 4 minutes, 35 seconds that ended with forward Shavon Coleman’s layup with 5:18 left to close within 27-19.
Florida, the No. 2 team in the nation in defensive efficiency, choked off any oxygen for the Tigers. Inside, O’Bryant was bumped and bullied by Florida center Patric Young, and the sophomore plodded to the bench with 7:04 left in the first half after picking up his second foul.
“I just try to be in the right position,” Young said. “I’m really good at trying to be active and really focusing and locking in on trying to keep the guy I’m defending uncomfortable.”
O’Bryant, who finished with just eight points and three rebounds, couldn’t raise any hackles.
“He’s a big strong body,” O’Bryant said. “He plays post great defense on people. He made it very tough. You got Young behind you, and they run and defend me.”
“It was important to them to take him out of the game,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said of O’Bryant. “They did a great job running two guys at him when he caught it trying to contain him, make him throw it over the top.”
Even when Carmouche, Hickey and Andre Stringer had the ball, Florida’s crisp defensive rotations and on-ball pressure made clean looks and driving lanes to the paint scarce.
“They follow the game plan and help the helper,” Carmouche said. ‘They have each other’s backs, and that’s a big part of college basketball. When your teammate rotates, you’re there for the next pass.”
LSU again was pounded by a beefier front line, getting outrebound 47-27 while allowing 19 second-chance points and a 28-14 gap on scoring in the paint.
Yet LSU lingered after Florida pushed the lead into double digits, closing within 35-26 on Malik Morgan’s 3-pointer in transition with 2:23 to go in the first half.
The next five minutes of game time, though, belonged to the Gators in a decisive run spanning halftime. Young scored on the low block with a little over a minute remaining to push the lead to 40-28.
Florida’s Michael Frazier dealt a thudding blow when he made a 3-pointer on a designed play out of a timeout and over the top of Morgan, who charged out to the right wing with his arm raised to contest, as the halftime horn sounded to send the Gators up the tunnel leading 43-28.
O’Bryant only needed 10 seconds in the second half to be whistled for his third foul after Young beat him on a drop step to the baseline for a layup.
“Very tough,” O’Bryant said of adjusting. “Not being able to get into the flow of (the game), when I finally got in, I kind of forced shots (and was) getting double-teamed.”
The flexibility of Murphy, who at 6-foot-10 and 210 pounds can play inside-out, proved the final death knell to LSU’s chances. On the wing, the senior set ball screens and wheeled out to the wing to take pitch-backs for open 3-pointers, such as the one that capped the Florida run with 4:58 left in the first half.
“He’s great at getting his feet set, knocking down shots,” Jones said. “He’s a matchup nightmare because, if he can get a guard inside because of the switch, he’s extremely patient in there and capable of making plays.”
Case in point: He made a 3-pointer off the left wing when LSU switched slowly on a screen for Wilbekin, stretching UF’s lead to 48-29 with 19:00 left.
On the next trip, he took a feed on the right block, stepped back to face up Coleman, took one power dribble and hit a floater off the glass to cap the 13-1 run and make it a 21-point lead.
LSU never pared it below 23 points until the final minute, long after Florida left an indelible impression.
“They knew we were a team that could sneak up on them and shock them,” Carmouche said. “They came out aggressive and just executed from beginning to end.”
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