No. 1 Florida overwhelms LSU

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As he battled on the left block, LSU’s Johnny O’Bryant III snatched an entry pass, pivoted and was swallowed up.

Florida forward Will Yeguete scurried to help Patric Young bump and jostle the LSU forward. The junior spun toward the baseline to flee — but stepped on the end line just 21 seconds after the opening tip.

And, really, that’s all the time the nation’s No. 1 team needed to illustrate its intentions against the Tigers on Saturday in a 79-61 drubbing by the back-to-back Southeastern Conference champions. The Gators have won 21 in a row.

“They be locked in,” guard Anthony Hickey said.

Three days ago, the Gators (27-2, 16-0) learned in a late-night text message of earning their title after Arkansas upset Kentucky in overtime. Presto: a fourth conference title in eight seasons.

So they treated the 12,589 fans packed into the O’Connell Center to a coronation — and made LSU (17-11, 8-8) the victim.

“We’ve just got to pick up the pieces,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “We’ve got to make sure we minimize our mistakes and take whatever positives we can from this basketball game.”

Finding them may take some work.

Florida jumped to a 10-2 lead in the first five minutes, feeding off four of LSU’s 15 turnovers, and led 21-9 midway through the first half.

It started by smothering O’Bryant, who scored 18 points but missed five of his first six shots, to the point where even throwing the ball back out to the perimeter was a challenge.

“Florida does a great job of doubling fast,” said O’Bryant, who had four turnovers. “They do a great job of making me get rid of it, and it’s not an easy pass out. It’s a tough, contested pass out.”

And slow passes out left Florida ample time to contest jumpers lofted up by the Tigers, who shot just 38.3 percent.

Hickey, who finished with 12 points, made four 3-pointers but went scoreless in the final 19 minutes. Andre Stringer went just 1 of 7 — missing all four of his 3-point attempts — to finish with two points.

Jordan Mickey added 14 points and 10 rebounds, giving him his eighth double-double of the season, and Jarell Martin chipped in 12 for LSU. Yet most of those came as Florida’s lead bulged to as many as 29 points in the waning minutes.

After back-to-back outings where LSU appeared to have shored up defensively, the Gators strafed the Tigers.

With a 24-10 lead and roughly five minutes left in the first half, Florida’s Michael Frazier II, who had 14 points, knocked down one of his four 3-pointers on a kickout from Dorian Finney-Smith.

A trip later, Frazier played facilitator by finding Devon Walker on the left wing for another 3-pointer during an 8-0 spurt that yielded a 32-14 lead with 4:47 until the half.

“Outside of Frazier, guys hadn’t been knocking down 3s like that,” O’Bryant said. “They did a great job knocking down shots.”

And it wasn’t simply a matter of being late on closeouts or failing to raise a hand quickly enough to contest shots.

“They were making the extra pass,” Hickey said. “They wasn’t holding the ball long. Just making all the right plays.”

UF shot 56.4 percent and manhandled the SEC’s worst 3-point defense by canning a season-best 13 of 23 shots launched from behind the 3-point arc.

“It allowed us to stretch the floor a little bit more,” said Florida guard Casey Prather, who had 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting. “It allowed us to go inside the cracks.”

There were plenty of those.

Often, they were uncontested looks. The Gators scored 34 points in the paint yet shot just seven free throws. So open were some Florida big men at points that Mickey, the SEC’s block leader, swatted just one.

Trailing 41-25 at halftime, LSU mounted a 60-second, 5-0 spurt to cut the lead to 43-30.

But then Florida rolled out its press, forced two turnovers, watched Prather lay them in and bop along to an 11-3 run capped by Kasey Hill’s layup for a 54-33 lead with 15:04 to go.

LSU didn’t bow its head, but the mission ahead is clear.

With no more chances for quality wins, the Tigers will need a deep run in the SEC tournament to revive their NCAA tournament aspirations or to protect an NIT bid.

A week after LSU watched Kentucky dole out last-second heartbreak in an overtime matchup at Rupp Arena, the pain dealt by Florida was different. Not that the Tigers cared to make that distinction.

“A loss is a loss,” Mickey said. “It’s all the same to me.”