You’ve probably heard this before, but Keyontae Johnson might be the most valuable player on Florida’s basketball team.
And if you had not heard it before Tuesday night, you definitely heard it after Florida’s 73-59 win over Arkansas.
The sophomore recorded his third double-double in his last four games. In his last six, he has scored 96 points and grabbed 50 rebounds.
He’d better watch out or he night make some All-SEC teams.
“Be careful with that,” Florida coach Mike White said. “More than anything, the game has slowed down a little bit for him. He’s playing more minutes because he’s earned more minutes.”
Florida needed every minute of Johnson and fellow sophomore Andrew Nembhard against the Razorbacks, especially down the stretch. Some poor shot selection and lapses on defense allowed Arkansas to cut the once dominant Florida lead to two a little more than five minutes into the second half.
The Gators had seen almost all of their 19-point first half lead dwindle away because an Arkansas team desperate for a win of any kind and especially a road win against a top 40 NET Ranking team had found holes in the Gator defense.
Mason Jones, the league’s leading scorer, was finding ways to score the way great scorers do. Midway through the second half, he had scored 20 points despite suffocating defense from UF freshman Scottie Lewis.
“There were five Gators chasing him,” said Arkansas coach Eric Musselman.
One of them was not Kerry Blackshear Jr., sent to the bench with four fouls, all of them on offense.
But that’s when defense, Johnson and Nembhard took over.
Jones only scored one point the rest of the way as the Gators started connecting defensively and driving offensively. After Blackshear left the game with his fourth foul, the two sophomores scored 19 of Florida’s final 21 points.
“We were just looking for space, trying not to force it but stay aggressive,” Nembhard said.
Most of Johnson’s damage was at the free throw line where he made 15-of-17. And slowly, the Gators began to lengthen a lead that looked shaky enough to have the crowd of 9,023 fidgeting in their seats.
“We got some stops down the stretch,” said White. “I thought that was the difference in the game.”
There were a lot of things that put the Gators (17-9, 9-4 in the SEC) over the top in an intense game that saw 40 fouls called and a bizarre technical called on UF.
Already mentioned — the defense of Lewis on Jones, who finished with 21 points but needed 16 shots and 10 free throws to get them.
Then there was the effort of freshman Jason Jitoboh, suddenly a factor for this Florida team. He played 15 strong minutes.
“He was bringing the energy,” said Nembhard.
And the three early 3-point makes by Noah Locke against the nation’s No. 1 3-point defensive team.
But mostly, this win was about Johnson and Nembhard down the stretch.
“We kind of expect that of him,” Nembhard said.
Tuesday night — as Florida won for the fifth time in six games — it was 24 points and 10 rebounds. The Gators are getting used to it.
“The coaches tell me to just be inside the paint,” Johnson said.
He spent a lot of time there.
“I love Johnson, I really do,” said Musselman. “He’s so strong. It’s not like we told our guys he couldn’t dribble drive. He’s probably one of the best dribble drivers in all of college basketball in the four spot.”
Johnson may be undersized for that position, but his stats are starting to say otherwise.
“I talked to him personally about playing his hardest,” said Locke. “That’s when he plays his best.”
Nembhard finished the game with 17 points and Locke with 11. Adrio Bailey had 16 for the Razorbacks, who have now lost 14 in a row at Florida and five straight this season without guard Isaiah Joe.
Bailey could also have been given an assist on the technical that was called in the second half. He snuck into the Florida huddle and was pushed away by Locke and Johnson, flopping to the ground as if someone had pulled a chair out from under him.
Locke received the technical.
“It was like someone trying to come into your house,” said Johnson. “You want to protect your house.”
White took the blame, saying that earlier in the season an LSU player was in the Florida huddle with his arms around the Gator players.
“That’s on me,” White said. “We saw that on film and got on them pretty good. What are we saying to each other? Do we not even realize he’s in our huddle?
“Next time, you’d better get him out of the huddle. And they got him out of the huddle.”
Florida next plays at Kentucky, the SEC leader, at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPN. The 10th-ranked Wildcats (21-5, 11-2) beat LSU 79-76 in the late game Tuesday night.
Bailey 7-14 0-0 16, Henderson 3-4 1-3 7, Jones 7-17 7-10 21, Sills 0-7 0-0 0, Whitt 4-9 2-4 10, Harris 1-2 0-0 3, Cylla 0-2 2-2 2, Chaney 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-56 12-19 59.
Blackshear 1-3 0-0 2, Johnson 4-7 15-17 24, Lewis 3-5 0-0 7, Locke 4-6 0-0 11, Nembhard 7-10 3-4 17, Mann 3-7 0-0 7, Jitoboh 1-4 0-0 2, Payne 0-2 1-2 1, Glover 0-2 2-2 2. Totals 23-46 21-25 73.
Halftime_Florida 33-26. 3-Point Goals_Arkansas 3-16 (Bailey 2-5, Harris 1-2, Cylla 0-1, Jones 0-4, Sills 0-4), Florida 6-15 (Locke 3-4, Johnson 1-3, Lewis 1-3, Mann 1-4, Nembhard 0-1). Fouled Out_Henderson. Rebounds_Arkansas 26 (Bailey 9), Florida 35 (Johnson 9). Assists_Arkansas 9 (Jones 5), Florida 7 (Nembhard 4). Total Fouls_Arkansas 23, Florida 18.
Texas A&M at Alabama, 7 p.m.
Auburn at Georgia, 7 p.m.
South Carolina at Mississippi St., 9 p.m.