Despite announcing some bad news before tip, the Florida Gators came out prepared and ready for their SEC opener in Colonial Life Arena.
About an hour before gametime, Billy Donovan told the media that two players, center Jon Horford and guard Zach Hodskins, were suspended for tonight's game because of the dreaded "conduct detrimental to the team." Hodskins' suspension was insignificant because he is a little played walk-on but Jon Horford, the Michigan transfer and member of the famous Horford family, is the Gators' starting center, averaging 8.3 points per game and 5.7 rebounds per game.
Due to the suspension, Billy Donovan was forced to start his 10th different starting lineup in 14 games. Guard Michael Frazier II, the Gator's current leading scorer who lit South Carolina up last season with 11 3-pointers and 37 points, was left out of the starting lineup after starting each game this season.
Despite it all, Florida quickly got out to a 6-0 lead. Ty Johnson couldn't handle Chris Chiozza's suffocating full-court pressure and the Gators dribble-drive and kick offensive gameplan seemed to completely confuse Frank Martin's defense. After subbing-in Marcus Stroman to take over the ball-handiling duties, the Gamecocks tied it at 6-6 after two 3-pointers. Ty Johnson hit a three from the left corner and then Sindarius Thornwell hit a three from the opposite corner on the very next possession. It took South Carolina 3:30 to get on the board but they finally did, and quickly, however, another drought swept through Colonial Life Arena. The Gators went on an 11-0 run when a recently subbed Michael Frazier II hit his first two 3-pointers along with two foul shots. When worries started to creep in, the Gamecocks answered with their own 11-0 run. The rest of the first half was a sloppy affair from both sides as each squad was active defensively, especially with their hands. Florida went 4:06 without making a shot, South Carolina was sloppy with the ball in the half-court, and both teams were simply all over each other.
Sindarius Thornwell sat from the 15:00 mark until the end of the first half after picking up two silly fouls early on. Despite Thornwell's absence, the Gamecocks led at halftime 34-31 but didn't take their first lead until there were 37 seconds left in the period.
South Carolina got off to a solid start in the second half and then the two teams traded baskets leading to an early 44-41 lead for the Gamecocks. Frustration then set in for the Garnet & Black. Sindarius Thornwell picked up his third foul quickly and then found himself with four fouls at the 10-minute mark. During that timespan, the Gamecocks suddenly lacked any sort of touch. They went on stretch of missing eight consecutive field goals before making one but then followed that up by going seven minutes without a field goal. The Gators used their speed, pushing the pace of the game to the tempo that they wanted and held an 8-point lead for much of the half. Dorian Finney-Smith had 14 of his game-high 20 points in the second half. Finney-Smith and Frazier were responsible for well over half of the Gators' 41 points in the second period.
With 2:52 remaining, Frank Martin called a timeout with his team down eight. The following minutes contained excitement for the Gamecocks and their fans, a feeling that seemed lost for much of the second half. South Carolina battled and whittled the Gators' lead down to four several times and even two with 6.8 seconds left. Mindaugas Kacinas hit two clutch 3-pointers late and Ty Johnson earned an And-1 to bring the crowd alive and create hope for a comeback victory. However, the Gators went 8-of-8 from the free throw line down the stretch to always keep the game at two possessions until the very end. South Carolina found themselves down just two with just seconds left on the clock but Florida guard Eli Carter iced the game with two free throws.
Florida blew three double-digit, second half leads earlier this season and the Gamecocks' threat brought back bad memories. In the Gators' latest game, a loss in a Final Four rematch to UConn, they missed four late free throws to blow a lead to the Huskies. They came in shooting 64% as a team from the stripe but kept it 100 in clutch time tonight.
The Gamecocks seven game win streak, it's longest in 11 years, has now been snapped. They also have now lost seven in a row and 14 of their last 17 games against Florida. South Carolina's defense and rebounding was uncharacteristically bad for much of the second half. They allowed Florida to shoot 43% from the field and outrebound them by 14. Sindarius Thornwell found himself in foul trouble for much of the game while Duane Notice looked passive and inept tonight offensively. Notice, who had averaged 17.1 points per game on 52% shooting in his last eight games, combined with Thornwell to go 1-of-11 from the field for 10 points.
South Carolina plays at Ole Miss on Saturday, a team that just gave No. 1 Kentucky a legitimate scare. It's unlikely that the Rebels will shoot as well Saturday as they did last night but regardless, South Carolina must be better prepared for their SEC road debut.