TAMPA — After Florida's regular-season finale Saturday, senior guard Walter Hodge said he had played his final game at the O'Connell Center.
Reminded that the Gators could host an NIT game if Florida doesn't make the NCAA Tournament, Hodge replied: "This was my last game in the O'Dome. I promise you."
On Thursday night, he did his part to try and keep that promise. Hodge scored a game-high 16 and had three assists, and junior Dan Werner had a double double to lead the Gators to a 73-58 victory over Arkansas in front of 12,152 in the first round of the SEC men's basketball tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum.
It was the fourth meeting between the two schools in the conference tournament, and the third in the past four years.
The Gators (23-9), the No. 3 seed in the East, play Auburn (22-10), the No. 2 seed in the West, tonight at 9:45. Florida, which slumped at the end of the regular season, likely needs to keep winning to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive.
The Tigers have won eight of their past nine, beating SEC regular-season champion LSU.
The Gators defeated Arkansas by 15 at home in mid January, and Florida coach Billy Donovan said he cautioned his team about taking anything for granted based on their earlier meeting.
As in the first meeting, the Razorbacks kept it close in the first half. Florida led 29-26 at halftime after the Razorbacks had a 5-0 run in the final 44 seconds.
Leading 39-38, Florida took control by outscoring Arkansas 10-0 and never relinquished that lead. Werner credited defense.
"I think our press started it," Werner said. … "We (got) a couple of big steals and went down and finished. We hit foul shots."
Arkansas (14-16) held Nick Calathes to 11 points, but the veterans helped carry the load.
Werner had 15 points, 13 rebounds and three assists. Calathes aided in other ways, with six rebounds and seven assists.
Florida began shooting 1-of-5. Nearly midway through the first half, the Gators shot 38 percent and were outrebounded 10-4.
"I think to start the game it certainly appeared offensively both teams were a little bit uptight," Donovan said. "And I thought we settled down in the second half and played a good second half on both ends. I'm just happy for these guys that they can move on and play again (tonight) and (it's) a great opportunity for them to play against an Auburn team that's probably as hot and playing as well as anybody in our league."
Florida maintained an early lead because the Razorbacks also shot poorly. Arkansas (14-16) shot 5-of-17 in the first nine minutes and was 1-of-5 from 3-point range.
"I thought Arkansas' guys tried just as hard," Donovan said. "Maybe we were just able to make a few more plays than they were to open a lead. But certainly it was close for most of the game."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]