GAINESVILLE -- Florida squeaked past Texas A&M 66-62 in excruciating fashion, nearly coughing up a 14-point lead in the final 1:58 at home Tuesday evening.
But Eli Carter sank two clutch free throws with 13.4 seconds remaining, sending the Gators to their second consecutive conference victory and a .500 record on the year.
The Gators (15-15, 8-9) bullied the Aggies -- a potential NCAA Tournament team at 20-9 -- for much of the game before misadventures at the charity stripe nearly proved disastrous. Florida hit just 5-of-14 free throws down the stretch until Carter ended a serious drought.
UF shot a woeful 52.8 percent (20-for-38) from the free throw line on the night, turning a potential rout in a nail-biter as Texas A&M scored on eight of 11 possessions.
“It’s happened to our team a lot this season,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “We’re not a mentally strong team. ... I don’t think there’s any excuse for that.”
Still, the Gators survived thanks to a balanced scoring effort and a tenacious defense, with four players scoring in double-figures led by forward Dorian Finney-Smith’s 12 points.
The junior also chipped in seven rebounds, three steals and two assists off the bench. Carter added 11 points with five turnovers.
UF actually opened the game in a 10-0 hole, failing to get on the scoreboard for the first 5:28 of the opening period.
Then Finney-Smith entered the contest, and the Gators immediately went on a 17-4 spurt, as the Aggies couldn’t buy a bucket.
A seesaw affair early in the second half quickly became a blowout, as UF took control with a 14-0 sprint.
UF’s half court defense was suffocating for the second straight game, holding the Aggies’ top playmaker Danuel House scoreless (0-for-10) for the first time all season.
The Gators frustrated House with traps and aggressive looks, with UF point guard Kasey Hill (eight assists, two steals) doing an excellent job in 1-on-1 situations.
Texas A&M point guard Alex Caruso led all scorers with 20 points, while swingman Jalen Jones added 15 points and nine boards.
“There’s times and glimpses where we play at a very, very high level,” said Donovan on Florida’s stingy defense.
“Mentally this was a game where we felt like we did a terrific job sustaining defensive intensity the whole entire time.”
UF honored walk-ons Lexx Edwards and Jacob Kurtz during a Senior Night ceremony before the game.
Kurtz, a key glue-guy the last two years, earned the start and scored a nifty hustle layup late in the first half, only to get injured on the play.
The forward, who finished with two points and two assists, was poked in the right eye and barely played the rest of the night with his eye nearly swollen shut.
Freshmen Chris Chiozza and Devin Robinson both scored 10 points. Florida shot 48 percent from the field, and hit 8-of-20 shots from downtown … Alex Murphy chipped in nine points, including seven straight during a mini-run in the second half. Murphy ignited a sparse crowd with a monstrous two-handed jam during a 12-0 run. … UF also played its seventh straight game without leading scorer Michael Frazier II (high-ankle sprain).
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