GAINESVILLE — With some of its toughest competition still remaining on the schedule, Thursday night's game against South Carolina was critically important to Florida in this respect: The Gators were playing a sub-.500 team at home with a chance to hold serve and remain in second place in the SEC.
And yet, its record aside, South Carolina didn't make it easy.
No. 12 Florida led by as many as 17 in the first half, then eventually had to fight its way to a 74-66 victory at the O'Connell Center.
The Gators (18-4, 6-1 SEC) have defeated the Gamecocks (9-12, 1-6) 10 of the past 13 meetings and have now won 18 consecutive home games, 12 this season.
"What won the game for us is we really did a great job getting to the offensive glass (20-10 advantage) because of the way they play defense and really rotate and scramble, and the fact that we got to the free-throw line 32 times (23-of-32)," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
A 14-2 first-half run gave the Gators a 27-10 lead with 10 minutes left in the half. But trailing 31-16, the Gamecocks outscored the Gators 12-6 in the final seven minutes of the half and trailed just 37-28 at halftime. Florida went 3-of-9 from the line in the final 5:48 of the half.
"The first half we led by (17) and we should have pushed it to 20 instead of letting them get closer, but that's a good team and they are not just going to lay down for us," said senior guard Erving Walker, who had 14 points and seven assists.
"I think we could have defended a little better, but a win is a win, and we'll take it."
Florida's hot shooting during its five-game winning streak cooled against South Carolina.
UF shot just 37.3 percent from the field, its second worst of the season. The Gators were 7-of-28 from 3-point range. But the Gators hit 15 of 16 free throws in the final 3:45 to seal the victory. Guard Kenny Boynton, who was coming off a 2-point game, scored 24.
"We won the game, and it was a woeful shooting night for our team," Donovan said. "And we almost got caught because I didn't think we had great maturity and understanding about the things we can control."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]