The goal in March is to survive and advance — a simple adage that nearly fell on deaf ears against Vanderbilt Wednesday afternoon.
The lowly Vanderbilt Commodores withstood a 12-point halftime deficit and battled the Gators to the final whistle. With 30 seconds remaining Scotty Pippen Jr. drove down the baseline, peered toward the corner and fired a bullet pass to teammate Trey Thomas on the wing.
Thomas made four threes already, so Gator nation enjoyed a collective exhale as his effort clanked off the back iron and landed in the warm embrace of forward Anthony Duruji.
Sophomore Tre Mann and junior Tyree Appleby converted at the foul line, and Florida escaped with an unconvincing 69-63 victory over Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament Thursday.
Florida fans likely doubled-taked at the starting lineup, as forwards Duruji and Samson Ruzhentsev snuck into the starting five and Niels Lane earned early minutes.
Starters Appleby and Scottie Lewis combined for just 13 minutes in the first half. The duo showed up late to the pre-game walkthrough, which elicited an angered response from coach Mike White.
“It’s unacceptable for this program,” White said. “We’re not doing that here, and we got a good group of guys, so they responded well.”
Florida’s new-look lineup played the Commodores even through the first eight minutes, but a Noah Locke three ball and a gritty layup capped off an 8-0 run.
Vanderbilt kept the contest within a few possessions, but woeful first-half shooting — 32% from the field and 20% from the line — prevented the Commodores from closing the gap.
Locke closed out a strong first half with back-to-back three pointers and took a game-high 12-point lead into the break.
White claimed his team played with fire in the opening stanza and gave the Commodores open shots. Pippen and forward D.J. Harvey burned the Gators from distance out of the locker room to halve the deficit.
Mann knocked down a three to put the Gators up 11, one of many clutch contributions from the sophomore Wednesday. The Gainesville native was the best Florida player on the court and put together a complete performance with 22 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
“He’s playing with great confidence,” White said about Mann’s recent success. “Some of it is maturity too. Physical and mental toughness — he’s just getting a little bit older.”
Florida left the door open with a 10-point advantage, and Trey Thomas burst through with a battering ram. The freshman hit back-to-back-to-back threes in slightly more than a minute to give Vanderbilt a shock 55-54 lead.
White called a timeout after the third triple and switched into a more aggressive 1-3-1 press. Vanderbilt made just one shot in the final eight minutes, as the adjustment sped up the Commodores and took them out of their offensive rhythm.
Still, Pippen’s knack for getting to the foul line meant Florida led by just one inside the final 90 seconds. Mann secured a crucial offensive rebound the next possession after an Appleby miss, and the shifty sophomore pulled up at the elbow and hit nothing but net. Thomas couldn’t answer on the other end, and the Gators survived the Commodores in their home city.
Florida will return to action tomorrow against Tennessee with an expected tip-off at 1:20 p.m. The game will stream on ESPN.