NASHVILLE, Tenn. Florida ended its slump just in time to rescue its hopes of making the NCAA Tournament.
Keyontae Johnson scored a career-high 20 points and pulled down 12 rebounds Thursday as No. 8 seed Florida snapped a three-game skid by defeating No. 9 seed Arkansas 66-50 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"It was a must win to get there," said Florida's KeVaughn Allen, who scored 17 points. "We were thinking win or go home."
Florida's victory boosted its postseason profile, but the Gators (18-14) can make an even bigger statement Friday by upsetting No. 9 LSU (26-5) in the SEC quarterfinals.
LSU is the No. 1 seed in this tournament. Florida won 82-77 at LSU on Feb. 20 but lost to the Tigers 79-78 at home on March 6, with both those games requiring overtime.
"I feel like we still have more to go," Johnson said. "We still have to get more big wins to prove our point."
Florida took the lead for good with just over 18 minutes remaining and stayed ahead thanks to its defense. Arkansas (17-15) failed to make a basket in the game's final 7 minutes, 54 seconds.
"I feel like we could have got anything that we wanted," said Arkansas' Daniel Gafford, who led the Razorbacks with 15 points. "We couldn't execute. We shot ourselves in the foot down the stretch."
Arkansas and Florida entered the tournament heading in opposite directions, though only the slumping Gators had a realistic shot at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. At the start of the day, Florida was 33rd and Arkansas 63rd in the NET rankings, which have replaced the RPI as a criterion for the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
Arkansas had followed up a six-game losing streak by winning its last three regular-season contests to go back above .500. Florida had won five straight in late February before ending the regular season with three consecutive losses.
Florida turned things around Thursday in part because leading scorer Allen broke out of his personal slump.
Allen had scored a total of 18 points in his last four regular-season games, but the graduate of North Little Rock (Arkansas) High School scored 17 points Thursday against his home-state school.
Florida was clinging to a 47-44 lead when Allen took a 3-point shot that bounced off the rim multiple times before falling through with 7:26 remaining. That 3-point shot started a 17-4 run that helped Florida seal the victory.
"He got a couple for him to go early, and you could see in his body language, his confidence level increased a little bit," Florida coach Mike White said. "Down the stretch, we rode him."
Arkansas: The Razorbacks were unable to do anything against Florida's defense again. Arkansas' 50 points Thursday represented a season low. The Razorbacks' lowest point total during the regular season came in a 57-51 loss to Florida on Jan. 9.
"Very disappointed in our performance," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. "(We'd) been playing some pretty good basketball. To come on this stage and not play as well we've been playing is kind of disappointing."
Florida: Allen's recovery from his late-season slump gives Florida plenty of reason for encouragement. The Gators' hopes of beating LSU could depnd on whether second-leading scorer Noah Locke can bounce back after shooting 1 of 9 against Arkansas.
REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
Johnson had gone scoreless in Florida's regular-season victory at Arkansas. He had arguably the best performance of his career in the rematch.
His 20 points shattered his previous career high of 15, set three times during the regular season. His 12 rebounds were just one off his career high.
"Bottom line is they played a lot more aggressive than we did," said Arkansas' Isaiah Joe, who scored 12 points. "They wanted it a lot more."
Arkansas awaits a possible NIT invitation.
Florida faces LSU in an SEC quarterfinal Friday.
Florida 66, Arkansas 50 - FINAL
Keyontae Johnson and KeVaughn Allen combined for 37 points and Florida beat Arkansas convincingly in the second round of the SEC Tournament.
Allen scored 17 points and Johnson led all scorers with 20 to go with 12 rebounds. The Gators hounded Arkansas on the glass, finishing with a plus-15 edge and 19-9 advantage on the offensive end.
Daniel Gafford led Arkansas with 15 points on 6-of-9 from the floor. Isaiah Joe added 12 points, but his three second-half points came at the line. He missed his final five 3s.
Jalen Harris finished with two points, five assists and five turnovers, which tied a season-high.
More from today's game on WholeHogSports.com later.
Florida 56, Arkansas 48 - 3:43 left
KeVaughn Allen has seven of the Gators' last nine points is killing Arkansas yet again. He's got a game-high 17 points in 30 minutes.
Desi Sills was just whistled for a pretty weak offensive foul call for pushing his defender off on a stepback. Gafford and Jones are the only Arkansas players with more than five points in the second half. Offense has been ugly. Osabuohien/Harris/Joe/Sills are a combined 0-of-9 since the break.
Florida 50, Arkansas 44 - 5:19 left
KeVaughn Allen knocked down another 3 over Isaiah Joe to set the score going into the under-8 media timeout. Allen has 13 points on 3-of-6 from 3-point range. Keyontae Johnson also has 13 for the Gators.
Daniel Gafford has 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go with six rebounds. He dove on the floor after a loose rebound and was tied up with Kevarrius Hayes. Officials ruled it a jump ball and Florida will have possession out of the timeout.
Arkansas has resorted back to its pre-winning streak 3-point shooting today. Razorbacks are 4-of-15 (26.7 percent). Isaiah Joe is 2-of-8.
Florida 47, Arkansas 44 - 7:42 left
Big eight minutes upcoming for both teams.
Arkansas desperately needed someone other than Gafford to get going or at least get a couple shots to fall, and that's been Mason Jones the last couple of minutes. He has five since the break and seven for the game.
So far today, Florida has grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and turned those into 13 second-chance points. Big key in this game.
Florida 45, Arkansas 39 - 10:34 left
Florida is trying to squeeze the life and energy out of Arkansas right now by crashing the offensive glass and slowing the pace and running clock. The Gators are 3-of-10 shooting in the second half, but have rebounded five of those misses.
Jalen Hudson has seven in the second half for Florida on a 3 and four free throws. Florida is in the bonus the rest of the way. Gafford has eight points and three boards since the break. Chaney is the only other Razorbacks player with a bucket. That has to change or Arkansas is going to be heading home early.
Jalen Harris now has five turnovers today, tying a season-high.
Florida 38, Arkansas 34 - 15:54 left
Daniel Gafford has opened the second half strong, scoring all six of Arkansas' points on 3-of-3 from the floor. He has a game-high 13 points and four rebounds.
Florida, though, has gotten five second-half points from Jalen Hudson, including a 3. The Gators are getting to the line, too, and that will be something to watch down the stretch. Arkansas fouled five times in the opening four minutes of the half.
Arkansas ball on its baseline when play resumes.
Florida 30, Arkansas 28 - Halftime
Florida finished the first half 1 of its last 9 from the floor but will carry a two-point lead into the break. Keyontae Johnson and KeVaughn Allen each scored 10 points in the first half.
Allen's play turned the game around - that and Jalen Harris' turnovers, which led to key Gators points. Harris has five assists but turned the ball over four times. This is the most he's turned the ball over in a game since South Carolina (5) on Feb. 9.
Isaiah Joe leads Arkansas with nine points on a pair of 3s, and Daniel Gafford has seven points on five shots, plus three rebounds. Desi Sills is the team's next leading scorer with four. Need Mason Jones or Sills to contribute a bit more in the second half.
Big stat: Florida has a 10-2 edge on the offensive glass, and it's led to eight second-chance points. Arkansas does not have a second-chance score today.
Florida 26, Arkansas 25 - 3:56 left first half
KeVaughn Allen has come alive here late in the first half. He's got a game-high 10 points and has scored 10 of the Gators' last 14 points. He averages 18 points in his last five games against Arkansas.
Jalen Harris has been very sloppy with the ball quite a few times today. He has four of the Razorbacks' eight turnovers. Isaiah Joe leads Arkansas with nine points. Daniel Gafford has five points on 2-of-3 from the floor. He needs to be more involved offensively.
Arkansas 19, Florida 17 - 7:29 left first half
Not a great four-plus minute stretch for Arkansas. Jalen Harris has turned the ball over three times, including on back-to-back possessions. One resulted in a Florida score. He's got four assists, but has to play under control.
Florida has hit three of its last five shots, including a couple of 3s - one from KeVaughn Allen. Keyontae Johnson has eight points to lead the Gators.
Daniel Gafford was the beneficiary of a questionable foul call before the break. He'll be at the line when play resumes. Gafford has four points and three rebounds so far.
Arkansas 15, Florida 9 - 11:56 left first half
Tempo definitely favoring Arkansas through eight minutes. Florida has committed four turnovers in 12 possessions to this point, and the Gators are 2-of-6 at the rim, including a missed dunk.
Shortly after the first media timeout, Isaiah Joe hit a 3 and was fouled, then made the free throw. Mason Jones has a bucket in transition as well and Adrio Bailey had a nice sequence in which he blocked a shot at the rim then finished a driving layup on the other end.
Arkansas 7, Florida 7 - 15:38 left first half
Offensively, the Razorbacks did not get off to a great start. Jalen Harris and Gabe Osabuohien took the team's first three shots. Harris missed a 3 on the first possession, had a floater lodge between the rim and backboard and Osabuohien missed a 3 from the top of the key.
But, Daniel Gafford, Isaiah Joe and Desi Sills each have scores. Sills hit a 3 from the right wing and Joe hit a filthy stepback inside the arc. Gafford scored at the rim on a nice feed from Harris. That's Harris' game right there.
Keyontae Johnson has five of Florida's seven points so far. Kevarrius Hayes has the other bucket on a nice high-low entry.
Arkansas' starting lineup: Jalen Harris, Desi Sills, Jalen Harris, Gabe Osabuohien and Daniel Gafford.
The Razorbacks enter today's game shooting the 3 very well over its last four games. Arkansas has made at least 45 percent from deep in four straight games for the first time in Mike Anderson's tenure. Desi Sills, in his five starts, is 11-of-17 from 3 - 8-of-12 on the left side of the floor. Mason Jones, who scored 30 points in the teams' first meeting this season, is 9-of-15 from 3 on the left side of the floor over the last three games as well.
Florida limited Daniel Gafford to just nine points on Jan. 9, but he finished with 12 rebounds. During Arkansas' 3-game winning streak, he's averaging 22 points on 26-of-37 from the floor and 7.3 rebounds. He is 20-of-26 at the rim in that span, including 11 dunks. Keyshawn Embery-Simpson (left foot) will be a game-time decision for today's game. If he is unable to go, Arkansas' bench production will be vital. The Razorbacks' forwards are 4-of-19 (21.1 percent) on jumpshots the last 3 games.
Florida's starters: Keyontae Johnson, Noah Locke, Andrew Nembhard, Jalen Hudson and Kevarrius Hayes.
KeVaughn Allen, who isn't starting today, led the Gators with 18 points in their win at Arkansas in January. In his last five games against the Razorbacks, Allen is averaging 18 points per game. He scored just 11 in the Arkansas' win over Florida in the SEC Tournament in St. Louis last March.
Florida ranked seventh in the SEC in conference-only games in offensive efficiency and played at the slowest pace in the league, averaging just 64.1 possessions per game. Defensively, the Gators allowed 102.2 points per 100 possessions, good for third behind Kentucky and Tennessee, respectively. Shooting guard Jalen Hudson led the SEC in percentage of shots taken (30.1 percent) and Noah Locke hit a team-high 46 3-pointers in league play.
Running updates by Scottie Bordelon of WholeHogSports.com