Florida Gators forward Alex Condon (21) tries to defend a shot by Georgia Bulldogs guard Blue Cain during the first half Thursday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn. [Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports]

Florida Men’s Basketball Defeats Georgia in SEC Tournament

A win is a win for the Gators. No matter how it looked Thursday night.

The Florida men’s basketball team took care of business in the second round of the SEC Tournament by defeating Georgia, 85-80, at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.

Florida (22-10), the six seed, advances to the quarterfinals of the tournament against No. 19 and third seed Alabama (21-10) at about 9:45 p.m. ET Friday (SEC Network).

The Gators go 3-0 against the 11 seed Bulldogs (17-16) this season with coach Todd Golden continuing his undefeated streak against former UF coach Mike White (5-0).

Walter Clayton Jr. led the Gators with 22 points on 7-15 shooting. Behind him were Tyrese Samuel and Will Richard with 17 points a piece. But Samuel had a monstrous game on the boards by securing a career-high 15 rebounds.

Georgia was led by Noah Thomasson with 14 points.

Free Does Not Mean Guaranteed

Many believed this was going to be a blowout in favor of the Gators. Well, Florida’s first-half shooting from the free-throw line made sure to keep things close.

The Gators shot a staggering low 31% (4-for-13) from the free-throw line in half one. Samuel was a big contributor to this margin by going 1-8 from the stripe. This, and behind Georgia’s bench outscoring the Gators bench 24-5 in the opening half, Florida found itself down early.

But have no fear, Richard is here.

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The junior was lighting it up from the field in the first half, scoring 13 of his 17 points with 5-6 shooting. He was the sole catalyst for offensive fire power when the Gators needed it most. However, the Bulldogs were able to take advantage of their second-chance points for a 37-34 lead at the half.

Boards For Days

The message at halftime was simple. Put the pedal to the metal on the glass.

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Florida and Samuel did make up for their poor free-throw shooting by the team going 19-28 in the second half. But what really changed the tide was how the Gators attacked for rebounds. They outrebounded Georgia 32-13 in half two. This opened up opportunities for Florida to get its own second-chance points and get to the free-throw line more.

Clayton Jr. Carries

This intensity on securing missed baskets allowed the Gators to crawl back into the game. But when Zyon Pullin fouled out with 2:10 left to go, someone had to step up. That someone was Clayton Jr.

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The Iona transfer had his shoulder wrapped up in ice after the game, most likely due to some minor injury, but also probably for carrying the Gators to victory. In the second half, Clayton Jr. scored 15 of his 22, with one of the buckets being a crucial and-1 opportunity to make it 77-73 Florida.

However, Clayton Jr. was not the only guard who was clutch down the stretch. Riley Kugel made his mark by going 6-6 from the free-throw line to ice  the game. Georgia made it a one-possession game, but Kugel made sure it became a five-point game every time down to the stripe by going perfect.

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Florida and Alabama split their two meetings this season, each winning on their own court.

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