ATHENS, Ga. — If defense is the measuring stick, Florida is peaking just in time for the postseason.
Noah Locke sank back-to-back 3-pointers during Florida’s decisive run of 10 unanswered points in the second half and the Gators strengthened their NCAA Tournament hopes by beating Georgia 66-54 on Wednesday night.
Keyontae Johnson had 18 points for Florida (19-11, 11-6 Southeastern Conference), which had to recover after trailing by 13 points early in the game. The Gators had good reason for confidence. They overcame a 22-point deficit in their win over the Bulldogs last month.
Locke had 17 points while making three 3-pointers.
Georgia had scored 90 or more points in back-to-back games, including Saturday’s 99-89 win over Arkansas. Against Florida’s zone defense, however, Georgia struggled.
“That’s as well as we’ve defended all year,” said Florida coach Mike White. “… It was easy to get these guys’ attention defensively. If not, they would have put up 90 on us.”
Anthony Edwards had 14 points, making only 3 of 10 shots from the field, in what is expected to be his final home game for Georgia. Edwards, a 6-foot-5 guard who is the nation’s top freshman scorer, is expected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft.
“I don’t ever look at it like it’s my last home game,” Edwards said. “No one ever knows what I’m doing so I don’t say that.”
Scottie Lewis, who scored 11 points and blocked two shots, led the defensive effort on Edwards.
“Them getting that zone that they were in and packing it in was hard for us, because we weren’t prepared for that,” Edwards said.
Coach Tom Crean said he was surprised by Edwards’ comment. “We spent the majority of the time on the zone the past two days,” Crean said.
Georgia’s Jordan Harris said the Gators “changed their defense and they kept changing it the entire game.”
“It was hard for us to prepare for because we never knew what they were coming out with,” Harris said. “I think that was the biggest thing, the way they played defensively.”
Rayshaun Hammonds had 12 points, 10 rebounds and six turnovers for Georgia (15-15, 5-12).
Florida rallied after trailing by 22 points to beat Georgia 81-75 on Feb. 5. Less than five minutes into Wednesday night’s rematch, the Gators were behind by double figures once again.
Edwards’ 3-pointer capped a 13-0 run that gave the Bulldogs a 19-6 lead. The long jumper came after Edwards’ steal and pass set up a jam by Tyree Crump.
Locke ended the Florida drought with a jumper.
“That led to other things,” Lewis said. “Obviously when we’re shooting the ball from 3 at a high level, Noah and I, plus (Andrew Nembhard), we’re a totally different team.”
Florida outscored Georgia 22-11 the remainder of the half, cutting the Bulldogs’ lead to 30-28 at the break.
Johnson drove through the Georgia defense for a two-handed jam that cut the lead to 23-20. He had three more layups in the closing minutes of the half. The sophomore had 13 points in the half.
Two wasted scoring opportunities hurt Florida’s chance to take control midway through the second half. An offensive goaltending call against Dontay Bassett and a shot-clock violation on an apparent jumper by Johnson helped open the door for the Bulldogs.
Edwards’ power move and dunk cut Florida’s lead to 45-44. A basket by Tye Fagan with 7:53 remaining gave Georgia a 46-45 lead.
Georgia couldn’t keep the momentum.
Florida answered with an 10-0 run that included 3-pointers by Locke following traveling turnovers on consecutive possessions by Hammonds and Edwards.
The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 55-50 on a 3-pointer by Sahvir Wheeler but couldn’t continue the comeback bid. Locke added another 3-pointer for a 64-52 lead.
“We played with confidence down the stretch,” White said. “Noah is a great shooter.”
With a No. 34 ranking in the new NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) that will be the new barometer for the selection committee, Florida’s spot in the NCAA Tournament appears to be secure. Still, after a loss at Tennessee, the Gators needed the win to avoid creating doubt, especially with a difficult home game remaining against No. 6 Kentucky.
Georgia, rebuilding under second-year coach Tom Crean, honored seniors Jordan Harris, Tyree Crump and Donnell Gresham before their final home game. But this team was built for the future. Edwards is one of nine freshmen on the roster.
Crean said his team’s 16 turnovers and poor defense were disappointing. “The bottom line is we had been better taking care of the ball and we had been better defensively and we took a step back tonight,” Crean said.
Up next: Florida closes out regular-season play with a 1 p.m. game Saturday (on CBS) against No. 6 Kentucky, which defeated the Gators 65-59 in Lexington on Feb. 22.
Blackshear 3-9 2-5 8, Johnson 8-14 1-2 18, Lewis 4-10 2-2 11, Locke 7-12 0-0 17, Nembhard 2-4 3-4 8, Mann 2-6 0-0 5, Bassett 0-0 1-2 1, Glover 0-1 0-0 0, Jitoboh 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-56 9-15 68.
Camara 2-2 1-2 5, Hammonds 5-10 0-2 12, Edwards 3-10 7-8 14, Harris 3-5 1-1 7, Wheeler 3-7 0-0 8, Crump 1-4 0-0 2, Gresham 1-3 0-0 2, Fagan 2-3 0-0 4, Peake 0-0 0-0 0, Howard 0-1 0-0 0, Brown 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-46 9-13 54.
Halftime_Georgia 30-28. 3-Point Goals_Florida 7-23 (Locke 3-7, Nembhard 1-1, Mann 1-2, Johnson 1-4, Lewis 1-5, Blackshear 0-4), Georgia 5-15 (Wheeler 2-3, Hammonds 2-4, Edwards 1-4, Gresham 0-1, Harris 0-1, Crump 0-2). Rebounds_Florida 29 (Johnson 11), Georgia 28 (Hammonds 10). Assists_Florida 15 (Nembhard 6), Georgia 11 (Wheeler 6). Total Fouls_Florida 13, Georgia 15.