GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A rugged three-game stretch to open the Southeastern Conference portion of its schedule couldn’t have started any better for an LSU basketball team that struggled at times in nonconference play.
After picking off the teams picked to finish first and second in the league race, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, in a span of four nights, the Tigers were surprisingly two-thirds of the way to a 3-0 start.
Only Florida stood in LSU’s path, the same Florida team that trailed Tennessee by 30 points in Knoxville three nights earlier in an eventual 83-69 loss.
The only problem was that by the time Saturday afternoon’s game tipped off, Florida wasn’t the same team that was rolled by Tennessee.
Neither was LSU after it played with an edge in the impressive victories over Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
The combination of being called out by first-year coach Mike White after the Tennessee debacle and a return to the raucous O’Connell Center was exactly what Florida needed for a 68-62 victory over LSU.
In a role-reversal of sorts, the Gators played with extra energy and the Tigers didn’t have enough of it — especially when Florida came out firing.
“They’re a good basketball team, and unfortunately for them, they had a bad night where things just didn’t go their way in Knoxville,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said.
Unfortunately for his team, the Tigers were next on the Gators’ schedule.
Florida shot out to a 10-point advantage halfway through the first half and never blinked.
White, who was the coach at Louisiana Tech for the past four seasons, could only laugh when asked if his team’s effort was a 180 from what it showed at Tennessee.
“That was at least a 160,” a smiling White said. “We just played really, really hard, so I’m proud of that. We can control how hard we play, and I’m pleased with the effort. It was going to take that type of effort just to have a chance.”
The concern going in, naturally, was with how they were going to defend Ben Simmons and his teammates who played so well around him in their first two league wins.
White said the key was making sure they tried to slow Simmons down some, but not pay too much attention to him to let Keith Hornsby, Tim Quarterman and Antonio Blakeney bury some big shots.
“We really didn’t know what to expect,” White said. “(Simmons) has played differently in different games, and LSU is so dangerous.
“I talked about toeing the line in defending them, doing your best to slow them down collectively, but not over-helping and allowing Hornsby to add three or four 3-pointers to what Simmons was going to do.”
In other words, White knew Simmons was going to do what he does, and that was 28 points, 17 rebounds and four assists.
“They were very conscious of finding Ben,” Jones said, “and making sure they tried to get in the game and not allow him to get to the rim.”
Half of Simmons’ points came from the free-throw line as he had 16 attempts after drawing 13 fouls from the Gators.
Hornsby was the only other LSU player in double figures with 10 points, but he missed all five of his 3-point attempts.
While Simmons and Hornsby combined to make 11 of 24 field-goal attempts, no one else on the team had more than two baskets in going 9-of-32 from the floor, which played right into Florida’s hands.
It didn’t help that the Tigers had 17 turnovers — eight by Simmons, with three coming on offensive fouls — contributing to a 15-5 edge for the Gators in points off LSU’s miscues.
Foul trouble was also a factor.
Hornsby and Quarterman played a total of 7 minutes, 44 seconds in the first half after picking up two fouls each. It forced Jones to go to a 2-3 zone the rest of the half, which Florida took advantage of at times.
Combined with the energy and intensity, it was too much for LSU to overcome on the road even though it trimmed the deficit to two points twice in the final six minutes and to one with 1:17 to play.
“I thought they did an excellent job,” Jones said. “They’re talented, and they played that way and executed at the level they needed to.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.