GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Mike White admittedly wore his guys out during a 10-day break for final exams.
It nearly cost the Gators against Mercer.
Noah Locke scored 18 points, tying his career high, and Florida staved off a late rally to beat the Bears 71-63 on Tuesday night.
The Gators (6-4) were up 16 points with 5:18 remaining before Mercer (4-7) whittled the lead to five on Jaylen Stowe's 3-pointer in the final minute. The Gators managed to close it out from the free-throw line, thanks to Locke and KeVaughn Allen.
"Really poor finish," said White, who blamed "heavy legs" for some of his team's late-game struggles. "We were a step slow to the basketball. Watched the clock the last five minutes, just waiting for it to run out."
Locke made 6 of 13 shots, including 5 of 11 from 3-point range, and was one of three Gators to reach double figures. Allen added 15 points off the bench, and Andrew Nembhard chipped in 10 points, four rebounds and seven assists.
Locke's 3-pointer to beat the halftime buzzer put Florida up six. He had two more treys early in the second half that helped give the Gators build a double-digit lead. Isaiah Stokes had consecutive points in the paint, including a nifty hook shot, that made it 52-40. Keith Stone followed a few minutes later with a 3 that pushed it to 13.
"Noah, there had to be three or four bright spots and he was the brightest," White said. "He plays as hard as anybody on our team."
The Gators seemed to relax with the big lead, and Mercer made it interesting. Ethan Stair's steal and layup cut Florida's lead to 60-54 with 1:22 to play, making every possession huge down the stretch. The Gators did just enough to escape. Allen made all four free throws in the final 30 seconds, and Locke contributed a big rebound and the final point to seal it.
"It was an ugly win," said Kevarrius Hayes, who had eight points, 11 rebounds and five blocks for Florida. "We weren't very sound defensively."
Ross Cummings led Mercer (4-7) with 18 points on 5-of-19 shooting. Jaylen Stowe added 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Bears, who have lost four in a row and five of six. Marcus Cohen chipped in 10 points.
The Bears outscored Florida 28-22 in the paint, but also got seven shots blocks.
"We've got to find a way to get those layups," Bears coach Bob Hoffman said.
It was Florida's third win in four games and a bounce-back effort following a four-point loss at home to then-No. 10 Michigan State.
The Gators have two more games before beginning Southeastern Conference play, but neither is a gimme. They play Florida Gulf Coast, which has made the NCAA Tournament in three of the last six years, and get a rematch against Butler. The Bulldogs beat the Gators in the Battle for Atlantis tournament last month.
"We've got to be better than that to compete with high-level teams that are on our schedule," White said.
Mercer: Despite losing a fourth straight game, the Bears kept it tight and even led late in the first half. Picked to finish fifth in the Southern Conference, Mercer has shown potential with a four-point loss at North Carolina State and then another close one at Florida.
Florida: Jalen Hudson's curious season continues. The fifth-year senior was back in the starting lineup for the first time since Nov. 21, but he missed five of his first six shots — including all three from 3-point range — and was a non-factor down the stretch. After averaging a career-best 15.5 points as a junior, he's getting 5.8 as a senior and appears to lack confidence.
Mercer returns home to host UNC Wilmington on Friday.
Florida plays Florida Gulf Coast in the Orange Bowl Classic on Saturday in Sunrise.
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