GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida men’s basketball team played with no energy in an embarrassing 14-point loss to Tennessee on Wednesday night.
Energy wasn’t a problem at all Saturday for Florida’s game against Ben Simmons and LSU, which was off to a 2-0 Southeastern Conference start after thumping No. 9 Kentucky on Tuesday night.
Fueled by a raucous crowd in the cozy O’Connell Center, Florida played tenaciously on both ends of the floor — especially whenever Simmons touched the ball — and came away with a 68-62 victory.
“Everybody was kind of embarrassed after the Tennessee game,” Florida guard Chris Chiozza said. “We all knew if we came out like that today, we would get beat by 40.”
The Gators made sure of that from the opening tip Saturday when they quickly put that stinging 83-69 loss at Knoxville behind them.
Florida (10-5, 2-1) broke on top early and never trailed — leading by as many as 10 points in the first half and by nine with 4:34 left in the contest — then withstood two strong runs by LSU (9-6, 2-1) in the final 2½ minutes to secure the win.
The loss prevented LSU from getting off to a 3-0 start in conference play for the first tine since the Tigers’ 2006 team won its first seven games on the way to a regular-season league title and Final Four berth.
Florida was much more aggressive early, and the Gators, who led the SEC in fewest points allowed at 63.5 points per game, made it known, holding LSU more than 22 points below its league-leading 84.3 average.
“We knew coming in it would be a tough game for us,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “Florida had a very tough loss at Tennessee, and we knew coming out that they would try to bounce back. They did a great job in the first half in establishing their aggressiveness. They created some turnovers and made it very tough for us.”
It didn’t help Jones’ team that guards Tim Quarterman and Keith Hornsby got into foul trouble while Florida was setting the tone for the game.
Quarterman, who had a monster game in the rout of Kentucky, played less than two minutes of the first half, and Hornsby was on the floor for just more than 6 minutes when they went to the bench with two fouls each.
They wound up playing a combined 7 minutes, 44 seconds in the first half. Quarterman didn’t score, and Hornsby had two of his 10 points before taking a seat.
“It’s the worst because you want to go out there and be aggressive,” Hornsby said. “Sometimes you overextend your aggressiveness and get fouls called. It ended up happening to Tim and me really early, even though I had confidence in our guys that were in there.”
It wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Simmons became a magnet for two or three defenders almost every time he had the ball but managed 12 points, nine rebounds and three assists to help the Tigers trail by only 34-31 at halftime.
“We were down only three,” Hornsby said, “so (the foul trouble) didn’t affect us in the second half that much.”
LSU tried to overcome Florida’s intensity in the second half and pulled within a point three times — the last with 1:17 left on a three-point play by Simmons — but never could quite get over the hump.
Simmons finished with 28 points, 17 rebounds and four assists, but he had eight of the Tigers’ 17 turnovers — with three coming on charging calls.
He committed a travel when his foot slipped while trying to drive the lane with 40 seconds left and his team down 65-62.
“I know I made a lot of plays where things didn’t turn out too well,” Simmons said. “I had a lot of turnovers, and a lot of plays down the stretch were sort of my fault.”
He fouled out with 14.4 seconds left after Craig Victor was disqualified on his fifth foul at the 2:08 mark and LSU trailing by just two.
Florida forward Justin Leon, who guarded Simmons most of the day, took two charges and had a big day all around with 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds — easily exceeding his season’s averages of 3.2 and 1.8.
He knocked down two 3-pointers in a five-minute stretch of the second half to tie forward Dorian Finney-Smith for team-high honors with 14 points. Center John Egbunu added 13.
In the end, LSU couldn’t make the plays it needed.
“Unfortunately, when we cut it to one or two late, we did not execute at the level we needed to to get them to play from behind,” Jones said. “We can’t match a team’s intensity level; we’ve got to be able to exceed it. That’s where we were today. We played hard, but not at the intensity level they were.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter, @MicklesAdvocate.