It would have been easy for Florida coach Billy Donovan to feel at least a little better about how his team came back from an 13-point first-half deficit to grab a two-point lead over the LSU men’s basketball team, shutting out the Tigers’ up-tempo offense for more than 7½ minutes Saturday.
Before he could, it happened.
Taking advantage of a Florida team playing without its top two scorers, LSU had dunks on three consecutive trips down the floor in a span of 39 seconds that ignited a 9-0 run to end the first half with a 33-26 lead.
Florida made another big run at LSU in the second half, whittling a 16-point deficit down to six points twice before the Tigers held on for a 70-63 Southeastern Conference victory.
Like so many other times this season, there were some nervous moments for a paid crowd of 9,203 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
But the dunk splurge by the Tigers, topped by a crowd-pleasing, between-the-legs windmill slam by Jarell Martin and his 3-point basket from the left wing to beat the first-half buzzer, made up for it.
Inside or outside, on offense or defense, Florida had no answer for the 6-foot-10 Martin for the second time in a month.
He scored 16 first-half points en route to a career-high 28 points and had a game-high 13 rebounds Saturday, following the 22 points and eight rebounds he had in a 79-61 beating of the Gators in Gainesville, Florida, on Jan. 20.
“We don’t have anyone that can handle him one-on-one,” Donovan said. “He’s a terrific player. … There are very few guys in the country where you can throw them the ball any spot on the floor and he can create a play for himself.”
The late surge by LSU (18-9, 8-6 SEC) brought the crowd to life after Florida (13-14, 6-8) bounced back from a horrible start with guard Michael Frazier II and forward Dorian Finney-Smith back home.
Frazier missed a fourth consecutive game with a sprained ankle, and Finney-Smith sat out his second game in a row after being suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules.
LSU jumped out to a 12-0 lead with 17:23 to play in the first half and extended it to 22-9 with 11 minutes left before Florida scored 13 points in a row.
Martin got a roller in the lane to drop to put LSU back in front before Florida had back-to-back baskets to take what would be its only lead at 26-24.
Keith Hornsby fed Jordan Mickey for a dunk before Martin’s windmill, which came after a steal by Jalyn Patterson, got the fans into it. Tim Quarterman got the third dunk in a row on a Patterson assist.
While LSU ended the half with a flourish when Martin knocked down the 3-pointer as the horn sounded, his dunk brought the crowd to its feet.
“I wanted to give our fans something to cheer for,” said Martin, who planned the dunk for a fast-break opportunity. “They have been coming out and supporting us all year, and I wanted to give them something to get loud for.
“It definitely had an impact on the crowd and atmosphere,” he said. “It got the fans out of their seats and brought the energy level up.”
LSU coach Johnny Jones wasn’t so happy with the shot selection, noting the ball could have wound up in the student section behind the goal.
“That basket was huge, but I’m not sure that at that time of the game we needed all the other extra there,” Jones said. “At the same time, it gave us a great deal of energy because we came right back with another steal on the open floor and scored another basket.
“Jarell gave us a lot of energy and played extremely well throughout the game today.”
Martin was just as confident on his 3-pointer, which led to a 14-5 run to start the second half that pushed the lead to 47-31.
“I was yelling at Tim, ‘Pass, pass, pass,’” Martin said with a smile. “He finally hit me, and I shot the ball with confidence and wound up making it.”
“He was calling for the ball, but I shouldn’t have passed it to him,” Quarterman joked. “But when he’s rolling like that, it’s his night. I saw him open, so I gave him the ball, and he knocked it down.”
Florida refused to go away and cut the deficit to six twice before LSU finished the Gators off on two 3-pointers by Patterson and a dunk by Mickey.
Mickey had 14 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots, while Hornsby was also in double figures with 12 points.
But it certainly wasn’t easy.
“We did not do a great job after getting the (early) lead in continuing to execute offensively and making plays on both ends of the floor,” Jones said. “We had turnovers. They had easy scoring opportunities. … But we did a great job closing the game out late.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.