Despite playing with a wounded big man, the Florida Gators managed to get by the Arkansas Razorbacks in the second of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. After tearing a ligament in his right thumb on Tuesday, John Egbunu only played limited minutes, but his presence helped inspire his team to a 68-61 victory.
Heading into the game, Florida coach Mike White was pessimistic about Egbunu’s ability to contribute. In the end, the 6-foot, 11-inch center chipped in eight points and pulled down nine rebounds for the Gators.
Egbunu made all three of his field goal attempts – a layup, a tip and a dunk – finishing with eight points. The latter was a huge play for the Gators, extending their lead to 60-53 with just over three minutes to play.
“I’m really proud of the big fella, he played through the pain,” said White. “He did whatever he could to help his guys out. It was a courageous performance.”
Both teams started out quite cold from the field. Florida did not score until 3:47 had elapsed, when Justin Leon’s layup tied the game at 2. It was only 9-8 with more than 10 minutes elapsed. A jumper by Kasey Hill put the Gators up 29-23 at halftime.
Florida took their largest lead at 39-29 on KeVaughn Allen’s three-pointer with 17:09 remaining. The Razorbacks hung around and closed to within 56-53 on two Dusty Hannahs free throws. Hannahs’ layup with 1:01 remaining made it a one-point game at 60-59, but the Gators scored eight of the game’s final 10 points to secure the victory.
Egbunu gave a courageous performance, but he was humble after the game.
“I told coach I would give it a go,” he said. “I’m just happy to do anything I could.”
Hill paced the Gators with 18 points off the bench. Dorian Finney-Smith added 13 while Vaughn, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, added 11.
Hannahs had a monster game for Arkansas with 33 points while Moses Kingsley added 10. Florida’s bench outscored the Razorbacks’ bench 28-5.
Florida moves on to face the top-seeded Texas A&M Aggies at noon on Friday. Most believe that to have any chance of making the NCAA Tournament, the Gators must somehow win that game.
If Egbunu has a little more inspiration left, along with another helping of rebounds and dunks, Florida could have a chance to pull the upset. Few gave them a chance against Arkansas, especially with their big man at far less than 100 percent.
That’s why they play the games anyway.