The intensity matched the stakes.
Three-straight losses to end the regular season left the 17-14 Florida Gators (9-9 SEC) in a must-win situation against the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday in Nashville, Tennessee.
No. 8-seed Florida bested No. 9-seed Arkansas in the second round of the SEC Tournament behind a suffocating defense and a career-best performance from freshman forward Keyontae Johnson.
The Gators secured a 66-50 win at Bridgestone Arena and added a critical victory to their NCAA resume.
UF advances to the SEC Tournament quarterfinals to face top-seeded LSU on Friday at 1 p.m.
Johnson led Thursday’s scoring effort with a 20-point, 12-rebound double-double and a team-high six offensive rebounds.
The Gators shot at a 38-percent clip, going 21 of 55 overall but fell behind at the start thanks to some early offensive deficiencies.
While the Razorbacks made seven of their first 12 shots, Florida went 4 for 12 in the opening nine minutes. Its poor shooting was compounded by four turnovers during that span, allowing Arkansas to jump out to a 17-9 lead.
Arkansas couldn’t take care of the ball either. The Razorbacks’ offensive onslaught was met with nine first-half turnovers, which gave the Gators room to work a 30-28 halftime lead after trailing by as many as eight.
Ten UF offensive boards helped, and Florida went on a 13-6 run in the final seven minutes of the half.
Johnson and senior guard KeVaughn Allen already reached double-digit scoring by that point with 10 apiece, and Florida outrebounded Arkansas 19-14.
Allen, a Little Rock, Arkansas, native, scored 17 against the Razorbacks after only managing 12 combined in his last three games.
After the break, Florida stretched its lead to as many as 16 as it continued to dominate the glass. UF totaled 41 rebounds on the day to Arkansas’ 26.
After allowing the Razorbacks to shoot 50 percent in the opening frame, a stifling Florida defense didn’t allow a field goal in the final eight minutes. It held the Razorbacks to 37 percent shooting overall and their lowest point total of the season.
Forward Daniel Gafford — Arkansas’ leading scorer — scored 15 points with eight rebounds. Meanwhile, the Razorbacks couldn’t turn stops into points in the second half, making just six field goals.
Florida’s offense started to match the intensity of its defense down the stretch. The Gators scored 18 second-chance points with 19 offensive boards. They moved the ball as well as they have all season and got to the free throw line in the second half, converting 14 of 18 attempts.
With 2:39 left to play, freshman guard Andrew Nembhard made his first field goal of the game, nailing a crushing three-point shot to give UF a 61-48 advantage.
Johnson hit a three a minute later, which seemed to deflate any energy Arkansas had left and close out a much-needed tournament win for the Gators.
Follow Alanis Thames on Twitter @alanisthames and contact her at [email protected].