The last time Florida and South Carolina faced off, the Gamecocks earned a Final Four berth over the Gators in Madison Square Garden.
The stakes won’t be that high tonight at 7 in the O’Connell Center, but No. 20 UF (14-5, 6-1 SEC) will still have a chance to knock off the team that put an end to its 2016-17 season and maintain control of first place in the SEC standings.
Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander collected a rebound on a missed KeVaughn Allen layup …
The Gators were also listed in the AP Top 25 for the first time since Dec. 11 when they were ranked No. 22.
In its Elite Eight loss to the Gamecocks last season, Florida squandered a seven-point halftime lead, missing all 14 of its three-point attempts after the break as South Carolina outmuscled the John Egbunu-less Gators when it mattered most.
The 6-foot-11, 265-pound Egbunu tore his ACL during a 114-95 win against Auburn on Feb. 14. He, along with other frontcourt players Isaiah Stokes and Chase Johnson, have each missed all or most of this season with injuries, forcing the Gators to use smaller lineups through their first 20 games.
While all three have been cleared for non-contact action, the timetable for their return to the court is still uncertain. In their absence, center Kevarrius Hayes and forward Keith Stone have taken near-sole responsibility for Florida’s frontcourt.
“Boy, have they gotten better since October, both of those guys,” Gators coach Mike White said.
Hayes and Stone have set career-highs in minutes per game, points per game and rebounds per game this year, receiving limited help from sophomore center Gorjok Gak (restricted by injuries) and freshman forward Dontay Bassett (just 4.4 minutes per game).
Florida’s frontcourt, accustomed to playing short-handed by now, will have to deal with South Carolina forward Chris Silva.
The 6-foot-9 Silva leads the Gamecocks (12-7, 3-4 SEC) in scoring with 14.5 points per game and brings down a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game as well, which ranks third in the SEC behind Georgia’s Yante Maten and Texas A&M’s Tyler Davis.
“(Silva) is a monster,” White said. “He’s one of my favorite players to watch in college basketball.”
Silva has become South Carolina’s best player in his junior season, stepping out of reigning SEC Player of the Year Sindarius Thornwell’s shadow. Thornwell, who has made a handful of starts with the Los Angeles Clippers as a rookie this year, scored 26 points against Florida in the Elite Eight.
The Gators expect a physical 40 minutes from the Gamecocks, a team that is known for its aggressive play.
“South Carolina, obviously, has our guys’ utmost respect… How stifling their defense is and how aggressive they are on the glass,” White said. “Our guys understand it’s difficult against these guys, as it was against Kentucky, to even get a clean look.
“We can’t allow anything easy.”