NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Shortly after No. 1 Florida escaped with a 57-54 win over Vanderbilt, veteran UF coach Billy Donovan was asked how his resilient team has won so many close games this season.
“Our margin for error is very, very small,” Donovan said.
In its first game as No. 1 this season, Florida handled the spotlight well enough to beat the Commodores. But the Gators couldn’t breathe easy until Vanderbilt senior point guard Kyle Fuller missed a game-tying 3-point attempt with four seconds remaining. Vanderbilt forward Dai-Jon Parker missed a putback attempt and the scramble for the rebound lasted until the buzzer sounded.
“Proud of our guys,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “On a night where we looked kind of ugly at times, we had a chance to play to the end. I give our guys credit for that.”
With the win, Florida improved to 6-1 in games decided by five points or less.
“We’ve played a lot of good teams this season, especially in our league,” Donovan said. “On the road, it’s never easy.”
Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith provided a huge lift for the Gators off the bench, scoring a team-high 19 points. None were bigger than his 3-pointer with 30.4 seconds remaining that extended UF’s lead to 57-52. Finney-Smith, who came into the game 1-for-his-last-26 from beyond the arc, was 3-for-6 on Tuesday.
“It was just me having confidence in my shot,” Finney-Smith said. “I was kind of in a shooting slump, but my teammates did a great job telling me to just keep shooting the ball.”
Forward Patric Young added 12 points and seven rebounds for the Gators. Florida (26-6, 15-0 SEC) won its 20th straight game and clinched a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season title. The Gators can clinch the title outright with a win Saturday at home against LSU.
“We don’t want to share, we want to be the outright (champs),” Young said. “So we’re just looking forward to LSU and hoping to clinch it then.”
Senior forward Rod Odom led Vanderbilt (15-12, 7-8 SEC) with 12 points, with Parker adding 11 points for the Commodores. Vanderbilt held Florida’s starting backcourt of Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II to a combined 16 points, but couldn’t account for Finney-Smith’s big night.
“I thought we did a really good job on Wilbekin,” Stallings said. “I thought we did a good job on Frazier. Did a good job in the second half on Young. But that’s why they are the No. 1 team in the country. They’ve got weapons. They throw it to the open guy and that guy usually delivers.”
The Gators attacked Vanderbilt inside early, with Young scoring six of Florida’s first nine points. Down 11-9, Florida went on a 13-0 run, fueled by its press and some timely 3-pointers from Frazier. Senior forward Casey Prather had a steal and breakway dunk on the press to put Florida up 13-11. After a Young putback extended the Gators’ lead to 16-11, Frazier followed with back-to-back 3-pointers to give Florida a 22-11 lead.
Down 26-16, Vanderbilt responded with a 6-0 run, with a 3-pointer from forward Shelby Moats cutting Florida’s lead to 26-22. But Florida sophomore guard DeVon Walker responded with a 3-pointer to extend the Gators’ lead back to 29-22.
After a 3-pointer from Parker cut Florida’s lead to 30-25 with 7.9 seconds remaining in the first half, Wilbekin banked in a fall-away mid-range jumper, putting Florida up 32-25. It was Florida’s first halftime lead since Feb. 1 against Texas A&M.
The Gators scored 10 first-half points off Vanderbilt’s 11 turnovers. But the Commodores stayed in the game by going 4-for-9 from 3-point range in the first half.
“The press was effective,” Donovan said. “We were disruptive to start the game. They did a good job a couple of possessions where they beat the press, they got two 3-(pointers) out of it. We probably gave up six to eight points out of the press, but we also turned them over a lot.”
NOTES: Florida freshman PG Kasey Hill sat out his third straight game with a groin strain. … Florida entered the game No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time since the week of Feb. 12, 2007. … Vanderbilt entered its matchup with Florida 8-16 against No.
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