Keyontae Johnson

Freshman Keyontae Johnson scored a team-high 15 points and collected nine rebounds in the Gators' 66-57 win over Vanderbilt Wednesday night.

If there’s one thing UF has going for it, it’s that it doesn’t lose to bad teams.

Coach Mike White’s team rarely beats good opponents, but it beats the ones it’s supposed to.

The Gators narrowly escaped what would have been a bad home loss against Vanderbilt. The Commodores entered with a winless record in the SEC and on an 11-game losing streak, but they gave Florida all it could handle. Though the Gators trailed by two at halftime, late free throws and tough defense gave them a 66-57 victory in a game they absolutely had to win. It also marked the most consecutive losses for Vanderbilt since 1934.

White praised the Gators for making key stops late in the game

“It was big,” he said after the game. “Those are the types of plays you need to make down the stretch to win close games and we haven’t always done that.”

A sloppy first half saw both teams combine for 15 turnovers and 21 fouls. Vanderbilt led 6-5 after the first 5:33, but then a 13-1 UF run gave the Gators (13-11, 5-6 SEC) a double-digit lead. Florida’s control of the game proved to be short-lived, however. The Commodores (9-15, 0-11 SEC) went on a 10-0 run of their own, tying the game up at 22. The Gators shot 1-of-11 during that stretch, and Vandy took advantage of their offensive misfortunes.

The ‘Dores stretched their lead out to five points in the final minutes of the half, but several late Florida baskets ensured the Gators would only trail 33-31 at the break. UF hit only one more shot than Vandy despite taking nine more in the half.

Florida’s offense came from an unexpected place in the first period. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Stokes came one point shy of matching his season-best scoring mark in the first half alone, leading the team with eight points in the first 20 minutes. He showed off his moves in the post, providing UF with some much-needed interior offense late in the first half.

“It felt great being out there with the guys,” Stokes said of his performance. “I just do my part with the team. That’s all it is.”

Florida came out of the locker room with some energy, jumping out to an 8-0 run thanks to freshmen Keyontae Johnson and Andrew Nembhard. But much like its run in the first half, Florida couldn’t hold on to that momentum. Vanderbilt brought the game back within two, and stagnation ensued.

Both teams went over four minutes without making a field goal, and the Gators struggled to keep their lead. But in a game with 46 total fouls, UF took full advantage of its opportunities behind the charity stripe. Florida made 18 of its 20 free throws in the second half, and that was enough to hold on for the win.

Johnson led the way in scoring with 15 points, while Nembhard scored nine points on 4-of-5 shooting despite only playing 16 minutes, a consequence of his four personal fouls.

Jalen Hudson scored 10 points in another solid outing after posting 15 points against Tennessee on Saturday. Six of those points came at the line, but he scored seven straight for the Gators in the second half to help them take control of the game.

“It was hard for us to hit open shots tonight,” Hudson said. “Even some of the contested shots that we usually make weren’t hitting. So getting to the free throw line when the clock was stopped was huge.”

By no means was it an impressive performance for Florida, but coming away with a win despite poor shooting from KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke should be reassuring for White.

Allen missed his first nine field goals, but he hit a key jump shot to put UF up nine with 1:30 left to play. Locke couldn’t find the bottom of the basket for most of the game, either. Nine of his 10 shots were threes, and he only made one of those.

“Odd that you win a game with your two main scorers… going 2-for-19 with Andrew Nembhard playing 16 minutes,” White said. “With that said, I think you’ve got to credit our bench.”

Most of the Commodores’ offense came from forward Aaron Nesmith. He scored 26 points, with 12 of those coming on free-throw attempts, but his team only shot 7-of-26 in the second half and is still searching for its first win since the calendar turned to 2019.

“We’ll take it,” White said. “Lot of stuff to clean up. We weren’t sharp defensively, but we did just enough.”

Follow Tyler Nettuno on Twitter @TylerNettuno and contact him at [email protected]

Tyler Nettuno is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the University of Florida men's basketball team. He has previously covered UF golf and lacrosse. He has worked at the paper since Fall 2017.