GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In three previous games at Exactech Arena on the University of Florida campus, Darius Days didn’t have the kind of homecoming he would have liked.
Playing for Southeastern Conference rival LSU the past three seasons, Days totaled 10 points and six rebounds while playing just 20 miles down the road from his hometown of Raleigh, Florida.
On Wednesday night, Days was on a mission early — and Eric Gaines was late.
Days won a race for the opening tip and laid the ball in just four seconds into the game and went on to score 11 points in the first 8½ minutes — one more than he had in his other three games combined on the Gators’ floor.
The early barrage got his team off to a strong start, and Gaines came up with some huge plays in the final four minutes, enabling LSU to hold on for a hard-earned 64-58 win.
Playing without injured starting point guard Xavier Pinson in one of the league's more hostile environments, No. 12 LSU faced even more adversity when Tari Eason and Efton Reid picked up three fouls each in the first half before both fouled out early in the second.
Eason, who was averaging a team-best 16.2 points and was second with 7.6 rebounds, fouled out at the 14:07 mark with six points and one rebound in eight minutes.
Reid picked up his fifth foul with 7:16 to play and took a seat with his team leading 54-51, his evening ending with two points and three rebounds in 13 minutes.
At that point, folding wasn’t an option for the Tigers.
LSU (15-1, 3-1 SEC) dug deep and survived after Florida (9-6, 0-3) trimmed a 14-point second-half deficit to just one with 6:08 left on a putback by 6-foot-11 forward Colin Castleton.
LSU then outscored Florida 10-5 in the six-minute game that coach Will Wade deems so critically important to secure the road win.
But the start Days got his team off to also played a big role.
“I thought we got off to a great start, which was huge,” Wade said. “They were going to come out desperate and play hard, but we got off to a great start.”
Gaines started in place of Pinson, who injured his knee in Saturday’s win over Tennessee, and scored six points in the final 3:46 when he continually challenged Castleton at the rim.
Gaines first sank a pair of free throws, then got a short jumper to roll in with 3:02 left.
With his team clinging to a 60-58 lead, he blew through the paint area and kissed a left-handed reverse layup off the glass to push the margin to four with 1:12 to go.
“That left-handed layup was about as good as you’ll see,” Wade said. “He made some huge plays, some big free throws for us in just a big, big win. He came out and really did a nice job.”
Gaines finished Florida off when he fed Alex Fudge for a baseline dunk with 25.9 seconds left after the Gators made 2 of 7 field-goal attempts in the final six minutes. The Tigers were 4 of 6 in that same stretch.
“We just had to grab some rebounds and we came down for a reverse layup, a big-time layup,” Gaines said. “We just had to settle in the last six minutes and get the win.”
"Basically, we came in the huddle knowing we're a six-minute team," Days said. "They (his teammates) said they got me, so we just said, 'We got to do what we got to do to win this game.' "
After scoring 12 first-half points, Days finished with a game-high 20 points and six rebounds.
He made a huge shot with 8:20 left after Florida cut the deficit to two for the second time in the second half.
The Gators trailed by a single basket a total of four times in the final 8:52, but could only get it down to one before Gaines took over.
He finished with a career-high 15 points and four rebounds, while Brandon Murray chipped in with 10 points.
With the foul trouble and in need of some length to offset Castleon, Wade called on Shareef O’Neal for the first time this season. Coming back from multiple foot issues, the 6-10 O’Neal played for the first time since February and contributed four points and four rebounds in 13 minutes.
“Shareef helped us big time closing out the first half with all the foul trouble,” Wade said.
Florida got 19 points and nine rebounds from Castleton, a first-team All-SEC preseason pick, while Phlandrous Fleming Jr. finished with 11 points.
“Give our guys credit, man. … We’re a tough out,” Wade said. “We have guys that stepped up and came through for us.
“Gaines made some huge plays down the stretch, Murray made some huge plays down the stretch. You know, we just dug it out.”