Florida dominated the paint, perimeter and three-point line en route to a commanding lead and a comfortable win against Vanderbilt — until it didn’t.
After leading by as many as 22 points with 10 minutes left, the Gators slipped and tumbled into a less-than-convincing 78-71 win over the Commodores at the O’Connell Center Wednesday. Nashville, Tennessee’s finest roared back to make it an interesting one by outscoring Florida 36-21 the rest of the way.
There was no greater force catalyzing the comeback than Vanderbilt sophomore guard Scotty Pippen Jr. The Commodores star strutted in averaging 20.6 points per game through 11 contests this season and dropped 18 during Vanderbilt’s first meeting with Florida Dec. 30.
The sharpshooting son of Hall of Fame guard Scotty Pippen Sr. saved his best performance for the rematch against UF, dropping 32 and leading a comeback surge that fell just short. . Pippen Jr. also added six assists and five rebounds to pair with his season-best scoring effort.
Gators coach Mike White acclaimed Pippen Jr. and the Commodores when speaking with the media after Florida’s up-and-down performance.
“Vanderbilt was terrific,” he said. “Scotty Pippen was amazing — just fantastic.”
However, with an early cushion and clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch, the Gators were able to stave off Pippen’s scorching right hand. Part of Florida’s winning equation was the return of junior forward Colin Castleton from injury and sophomore guard Scottie Lewis after issues with health and safety protocols.
When the clock hit double zeros to close out the first half, Florida entered the locker room with a 37-29 advantage over Vanderbilt. An eight-point lead over an SEC rival is comfortable enough to say Florida decisively won the half, but the stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story.
Pippen Jr. willed Vanderbilt back into the contest after the Commodores fell behind 9-2 early due to three-straight triples from Florida. The Hall of Fame kin chalked up 14 points to lead all first-half scorers to bring Vanderbilt within two points with five minutes to play in the first.
However, Lewis answered with 10 first-half points of his own to keep Florida afloat in returning to the starting lineup. Lewis had missed the past four games due to health and safety protocols. After the Commodores inched to within two, Florida ripped off eight-straight to make it 35-25, later settling for an eight-point advantage at the break.
Lewis said White told him to keep his head down and play simple ball in his return to the court.
“Coach told me to play low, play slow mentally and just be solid during the game,” he said.
All 10 of Lewis’ points were scored in the first half.
The pendulum swung back in Florida’s favor to kick off the final 20 minutes, with a cornucopia of Gators getting in on the scoring festivities.
Sophomore guard Tre Mann led all UF players with 15 points, followed by 13 from Castleton and a dozen each from junior guards Noah Locke and Tyree Appleby. In all, five Gators eclipsed double-digit scoring.
But the party didn’t last. Florida’s 22-point cushion melted like the ice caps, and the Gators were left floating on top of a slim four-point lead with 37 seconds to play after Pippen Jr.’s layup to make it 73-69.
Before Pippen hit his final tally of 32 points on that layup, his supporting cast finally supported him. Vandy sophomore forward Dylan Disu finished second in team scoring with 18 points and led the squad with nine rebounds and two blocks. Senior guard Maxwell Evans also scored his first and only two buckets on back-to-back threes late in the game as part of a 9-0 run by Vanderbilt before Pippen Jr. cut Florida’s lead to just four.
But Florida froze Vanderbilt’s comeback just enough by icing the game by going 5-of-6 from the free throw line to close out the game. Appleby, Castelton and Mann all sank shots from the charity stripe to bury the Commodores once and for all.
White was dissatisfied with Florida’s overall performance after the game but said he understands the team can’t dwell on it too much with a trip to Morgantown to face off against No. 11 West Virginia Saturday.
Tip-off is at 2 p.m. and can be streamed on ESPN.
Contact Dylan O’Shea at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @dylanoshea24