GAINESVILLE — Considering their last meeting, there was no reason to expect anything other than a dogfight.
And so it was with South Carolina and Florida on Tuesday night. In a rematch of a game two weeks ago that the Gamecocks won on a layup with no time left, the Gators and Gamecocks played another thriller — with a different result.
Florida defeated South Carolina 97-93 at the O'Connell Center in front of a national television audience. With Kentucky's 66-57 home loss to Mississippi State earlier Tuesday, Florida (19-4, 6-2) took sole possession of first place in the SEC East.
Florida next plays at Kentucky on Tuesday.
"Dan Werner said in the huddle right before the tipoff, 'It's going to be a dogfight,' " said sophomore center Alex Tyus, who had 19 points and seven rebounds. "So we just had that mind-set. We made free throws, and that was the main difference. We kept scoring when they scored, we got the lead, held on and that's what got us the win."
Florida led 49-45 at halftime, and the second half was a see-saw battle until the end. Tied at 72 with 10:23 remaining, Florida opened a 84-75 lead with 5:21 left.
But South Carolina, led by junior guard Devan Downey, refused to go down without a fight. Downey scored 11 of his 33 in the final 46.3 seconds to keep the Gamecocks close.
"He's a great player with a great shot," said UF guard Erving Walker, who had a career-high 18 points. "We played the best defense we could. You have to tip your hat to him."
The difference came down to free-throw shooting. In a game with 49 fouls, the Gators took better advantage. Florida was 31-of-40 from the line, 13-of-16 in the final 2:11. South Carolina was 10-of-22 and also had 17 turnovers that led to 24 Gator points.
"We rebounded well (45) but we did not defend or take care of the basketball well," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. "I think that was the difference. Give Florida credit; they played really well and made key shots."
Leading 95-93 with 12.2 seconds remaining, senior guard Walter Hodge hit two free throws to seal the win.
"I wouldn't want anybody else on the line in that situation," said sophomore forward Chandler Parsons, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds. "That was a huge win. Right from the tip, coach said this was going to be a battle and we just found a way to win tonight."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.