The polls don't matter much in December, but No. 16 Florida vs. No. 15 Memphis was as evenly fought as the rankings would have suggested.
After a scintillating, back-and-forth, well-executed battle, though, it was the Gators escaping Madison Square Garden with a 77-75 win when Joe Jackson missed a last-second attempt at the rim.
Big win for the Gators! 77-75 over Memphis. UF goes 3-1 through the toughest 4-game stretch you'll see on anyone's non-conf slate.— Gator M-Basketball (@GatorZoneMBK) December 18, 2013
Florida committed a season-high 18 turnovers but shot 50.9 percent from the field and got 22 points from Casey Prather to improve to 8-2.
Jackson led five double-digit scorers with 17 for Memphis, which drops to 7-2. But one thing was clear after such a well-played contest. Both of these teams are for real:
It's hard to come away from this game not thinking both teams have the pieces to make a Final Four run.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) December 18, 2013
Welp, whatever happens this has been an awesome game to watch. Been really impressed by both teams.— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) December 18, 2013
The Gators started red-hot out of the gates, knocking down four of their first six three-point attempts, while Memphis lacked energy on defense and committed several sloppy turnovers.
At the under-12-minute timeout, Florida already held a commanding lead, 21-11.
Josh Pastner went to a dynamic four-guard lineup and got his squad to wake up, though, and the Tigers immediately reeled off a 14-6 run behind some solid play from transfer Michael Dixon off the bench and some vexing defense from Geron Johnson.
From there, it was back-and-forth, high-quality play on both sides, and the Gators carried a 41-38 lead into halftime.
Chris Harry of GatorZone.com gave a glimpse of the offensively-charged stats after 20 minutes:
Halftime: Florida 41, Memphis 38. #Gators 50% to Tigers 53. Wilbekin/Prather 8 pts, DFS 7. Pellom 10 for Memphis.— Chris Harry (@GatorZoneChris) December 18, 2013
The second half was about as evenly fought as it gets—the lead didn't grow to above three until under the 10-minute mark when the Gators took a six-point lead.
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Electric freshman Kasey Hill then hit his first three of the season at the 6:03 mark to extend Florida's lead to 69-61, but as was typical all game long, Memphis responded, scoring five quick points behind a Joe Jackson jumper and Chris Crawford trey.
After Scottie Wilbekin missed a late free throw, Memphis got a chance to tie or win, but Jackson's drive to the hoop came up short, sealing the victory for the Gators.
Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida: B+
For the second game in a row, the Virginia Tech transfer gave the Gators a huge offensive spark off the bench, this time scoring 14 points and knocking down two shots from beyond the arc.
His buckets came at key moments, as well. He had five early points at the start of the first half during Florida's big run, and he scored five straight after Memphis took a one-point lead early in the second half.
To top it off, "Doe" tied for the team lead with eight rebounds—five of which came off the offensive glass.
Geron Johnson, Memphis: B+
The only real negative about Geron Johnson's performance? He sometimes forced on offense, going 0-of-4 from beyond the arc and committing five turnovers.
Elsewhere, though, he put on a show. The senior was a nuisance on defense and put on a display of impressive athleticism on offense, as he threw down several monster jams and made countless plays in the open court.
In the end, he finished with 13 points, four rebounds, one offensive rebound (which was accompanied by a putback dunk, because of course), four assists, three steals and a block.
Casey Prather, Florida: A
Prather continued to make his case for most improved player in the nation, pouring in 22 points on an efficient 13 shots to go with five rebounds and a block.
He surpassed his season average in points, which is currently triple what it was as a junior, and CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello continued to marvel at Prather's season:
Don't think anyone saw this type of season coming from Casey Prather. And it's still crazy. 6-5 guy who takes 60% of his shots at the rim.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) December 18, 2013
Prather once again did most of his offensive work going towards the basket, and he scored some key baskets (and hit some clutch free throws) as the go-to guy down the stretch.
Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: B
Goodwin only scored seven points, but almost every time the ball touched his hands on offense, good things happened for Memphis, usually because of his passes.
The much-improved sophomore made a bevy of high-IQ passes, resulting in an impressive five assists, a number that easily could have hit seven or eight.
He also added five rebounds, a block and a steal.
The Gators return back to Gainesville, where they host Fresno State on Dec. 21 before getting a break for the holidays. Memphis hosts Southeast Missouri State on the same date.