Two minutes into the second half Tuesday night, a lethargic Florida team had allowed six offensive rebounds, committed an eye-raising turnover straight out of bounds and allowed an unguarded dunk from Arkansas guard Jalen Smith.
With a blowout looming, an immediate timeout from coach Mike White and improved defense morphed the game into a nail-biter.
Guard Tyree Appleby impressed in his Arkansas homecoming, hitting a pair of late eight-foot floaters that gave UF its first lead of the game with just 4:40 left to play.
But Arkansas’ defense stiffened down the stretch, forcing poor shots and costly turnovers that ensured a 75-64 victory for the Razorbacks Tuesday night at Bud Walton Arena.
Florida began the contest with visible rust after a COVID-19 induced, 14-day hiatus, as Arkansas scored the first two baskets and dominated much of the first half.
Juniors Osayi Osifo and Colin Castleton converted under the rim to tie the game at ten. Still, UF’s woeful shooting allowed Arkansas to build a healthy eight-point lead after a three-ball from junior Jalen Tate.
The Gators shot just 31% from the field and 21% from three in the first half, a stat Mike White attributed to the Arkansas defense rather than COVID rust or poor shot selection.
While Florida’s shooting was affected by the sub-freezing temperatures in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Justin Smith started red hot inside the Bud Walton Center. The combo guard posted eight points, grabbed five boards and dished out three assists while missing just one shot.
A fadeaway jumper from Smith capped off a 12-2 run and with his team trailing by 13, Florida coach Mike White called an immediate timeout.
An alley-oop flush from sophomore Omar Payne and a pair of free throws from Appleby prevented a blowout. Still, Arkansas maintained a double-digit lead into the break after center Connor Vanover slammed home to beat the buzzer.
Florida found its second-half groove immediately after White’s timeout, embarking on a 9-0 run fueled by two Arkansas turnovers. Florida’s switch to a 2-2-1 zone press and increased effort on the defensive end payed dividends, as the Gators forced nine second-half turnovers.
“I thought we were much more handsy in the second half,” White said about his teams defense. “I was very displeased with our overall physical effort in the first half. We didn’t match Arkansas’ intensity and competitiveness level. I thought we did in the second half.”
After struggling with fouls most of the evening, sophomore Scottie burst to life with a steal and four straight points, gliding past Vanover to trim the deficit to five
Castleton answered a pair of close-range Smith jumpers with a nice hook shot and a couple of free throws as the lead hovered around two possessions into the final seven minutes of the game.
Appleby’s layups gave Florida a brief 62-61 lead, but they were Florida’s last field goals of the game, as Arkansas’ top-20 defense showed its meddle in crunch time.
“I thought Arkansas was really good late,” White said. “We had a couple tough decisions I wish that we could have back.”
Arkansas sophomore Davis Davonte converted a fast-break layup, while Tate and Moody scored in a decisive 6-0 run for the Hogs.
Trailing by four with under a minute to go, Appleby had the ball stripped from his left hand and was forced into a jump ball, sealing Florida’s fate.
Florida will return to action Saturday at the O’Dome against a Georgia team coming off an impressive, 10-point win over Missouri.
Action will tip off at 3:30 p.m. and can be steamed on the SEC Network.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com or contact him on Twitter @declanaw