NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Florida and LSU played earlier this season at Baton Rouge, La., the Gators closed the first half and opened the second on wicked tears to blow the game open.
But that was more than two months ago.
Much has happened since.
“The last time we played was very early,” Tigers sophomore forward Johnny O’Bryant (pictured below) said after LSU held off Georgia for a 68-63 in Thursday’s second-round action of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. “We were still trying to find out who we were as a team. We’ve done a lot better since then.”
The Tigers (19-11) have done well enough to earn a rematch against the top-seeded and 13th-ranked Gators (24-6) in Friday’s tournament quarterfinals.
UF stomped LSU 74-52 back on Jan. 12, but the Tigers are riding some confidence, winning nine of the previous 13, and Thursday built a 23-point lead on the Bulldogs and then withstood a furious comeback (and 32-point, 13-rebound night from SEC Player of the Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) to advance.
LSU was led by forward Shavon Coleman, who went 9-for-11 from the floor, including 4-for-5 from 3-point range to finish 24 points and six rebounds. Coleman totaled just 24 points over his previous four games.
“I had the hot hand and the team kept coming to me,” Coleman said.
O’Bryant, the former McDonald’s All-American, scored 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and was an active force inside. That’s not the O’Bryant the Gators saw in January. That O’Bryant scored just two points and was benched two minutes into the second half by Coach Johnny Jones -- while Florida was in the middle of a 31-6 run -- and did not re-enter the game.
As O’Bryant said, that was the last time.
The Tigers weren’t saying so, but they’ll certainly be more confident heading into this game against a Florida team that has dropped three of its last six and has struggled to put the ball in the basket (62.5 points over last six games).
“I think we’re a better basketball team than the first that we played them early on, but at the same time, as well as Florida played, I think they’ve continued to improve as well,” Jones said diplomatically. “It will be a great challenge for us [Friday] and one we’re excited and looking forward to.”
Look for an up-tempo approach from both teams -- conversely, a date with Georgia would have been a slogging, low-possession half-court slugfest -- with the Gators hoping to bring the suffocating defense that has been their one constant this season, as well as pick up their play on the boards.
Florida has been out-rebounded in four of the last six games (and stalemated in a fifth), but should take a cue from what the Bulldogs did to the Tigers on the glass. Georgia out-rebounded LSU 48-34, pulling 21 off the offensive glass.
“That’s an area we’re going to really have to improve in,” Jones said. “It’s going to be a war zone down there. Florida is strong, they’re very physical and they’ll get to the basket and also rebound the ball strong. That will be an area we’ll have to clean up.”