Florida's last-second magic, free throw parade dooms the Tigers
NASHVILLE – Note to NCAA Tournament selection committee: If you invite Florida, please the put the Gators in another region far, far away from LSU.
Florida and the Tigers don't need to play again. Because if the first three games didn't cause an emergency room full of heart attacks, a fourth matchup just might.
After splitting a pair of overtime games in the regular season, the 8th seeded Gators used guard Andrew Nembhard's game-winning 3-pointer with 1.2 seconds for a 76-73 victory over the top-seeded LSU in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals Friday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena.
Despite freshman forward Naz Reid’s 26 points, including two-game tying 3’s in the final minute, LSU (26-6) lost the type game it won so many times this season in capturing the league’s regular season championship.
It just so happened Florida (19-14) had the last shot and Nembhard, who scored a team-high 20 points, nailed an open look from a step or two left of the top of the key.
The Gators trailed by 10 points at the half, but a second-half run when they made 10 straight field goals made it a fight to the finish in a game that LSU led for just more than 36 minutes. Florida shot 59.3 percent from the field in the second half, including 6-of-13 3s after going 2-of-15 in the first half.
“We did a great job the first half, then things got shaky,” said LSU guard Skylar Mays, who scored a mere six points on 3-for-13 field goal shooting. “We stopped defending, got away from our game plan. Florida is a well-coached team that consistently runs its stuff.”
Just after Mays threw down a jaw-dropping dunk for a 63-60 LSU lead with 4:01 left, the Tigers went from a 3-point advantage to a 3-point deficit on a 6-point play by the Gators on their next possession 16 seconds later.
On Keyonte Johnson’s 3-pointer, Reid fouled screener Kevarrius Hayes. Before Hayes had a chance to shoot two free throws, LSU interim coach Tony Benford was whistled for a technical foul.
The Gators’ KeVaughn Allen swished the two technical free throws, then Hayes hit the first of his two free throws for a 66-63 lead with 3:45 remaining.
“Naz kind of pushed through the screen, through the pindown defender,” Benford said. “The ref blew his whistle, then the shot was after the whistle, I thought. Everybody around me said it was after the whistle. They counted the three. I was confused by that. Not count the shot, move on, take the ball out. I just questioned him (the official) about that.
“Unfortunately, I probably shouldn't have gotten the T looking back on it.”
Florida was able to rally from a 35-25 halftime deficit by eliminating two of LSU’s tried-and-true strengths. The Tigers outscored the Gators just 15-13 in second-chance points and Florida made nine more free throws than LSU.
In fact, Florida missed 10 free throws going 16-for-26 and still won, because it made 15-of-16 free throws in the 16:05 it spent in the bonus (including the game’s final 9:55). LSU was 2-of-2 in the bonus, which for the Tigers occurred only in the final 3:17.
At one point in the second half when the Gators caught fire, LSU was whistled for a string of five consecutive fouls. The Tigers kept driving the ball into the teeth of Florida’s defense, but rarely drew a favorable whistle from the officiating crew of Doug Shows, Chuck Jones and K.B. Burdett.
“I can't get into that,” Benford said of LSU being called for 24 fouls compared to 10 for Florida. “We're not going to get any calls. I heard guys when there's an interim coach, you're not getting any calls. I thought they fouled, we fouled some. They got the calls, we didn't get the calls. It's part of the game.”
LSU opened the second half with four straight missed shots and it didn’t get much better. After shooting 53.3 percent from the field in the first half, the Tigers faded to 42.4 in the second half when they were outscored 51-38.
“We were not defending at a very high level in the first half,” Florida coach Mike White said. “The defensive level of intensity and accountability was discouraging. I thought we really locked in in the second half, defended at a much higher level.”
LSU’s most two most consistent offensive players on the floor were Reid, who also collected 14 rebounds, and freshman guard Javonte Smart.
Smart missed last Saturday’s game vs. Vanderbilt while the LSU compliance department investigated to see if he was linked to the college basketball recruiting scandal that resulted in an indefinite suspension for LSU coach Will Wade.
Just before LSU boarded the bus at its team hotel two hours before Friday’s noon tip, Smart learned he had been reinstated. Then, he went out and scored 13 points on 5-of-7 shooting in 31 minutes of playing time.
“I was just ready to come out, help the team,” Smart said.
Reid accounted for three of LSU’s six 3-pointers, including one that tied the game at 70-70 with one minute left and another off a designed play after a timeout for a 73-73 deadlock with 14 seconds to play.
“We run our offense through whoever happens to be hot,” LSU point guard Tremont Waters said. “Naz was that guy today. In the huddle in that last time out, he said he wanted the ball.”
But the Tigers couldn’t stop Nembhard’s game-winning 3 – “Keyontae found me and I had to let it go,” Nembhard said – and LSU returned home to await its NCAA tourney bid when the brackets are announced late Sunday afternoon.
Even with Friday’s loss, the Tigers should be no worse than a No. 3 seed.
“We still have a lot of great basketball ahead of us,” Mays said. “We’ll just go back to work.”