GAINESVILLE, Fla. – South Carolina's early hole, a 17-point deficit at No. 12 Florida, was simply too much to overcome.
Bruce Ellington scored 15 points, Malik Cooke and Damonte Harris added 12 apiece and the Gamecocks lost for the sixth time in seven Southeastern Conference games, 74-66.
South Carolina (9-12, 1-6 Southeastern Conference) enjoyed its best defensive effort of the season, holding the Gators to 37.3 percent shooting. But coach Darrin Horn's team struggled rebounding and squandered several chances late.
"The challenge is when you're playing a team of Florida's caliber and you've dug yourself in a hole," Horn said. "Our defensive effort was phenomenal. Offensively, in the second half, when we spread the floor and started attacking a little more, we had some good things happen."
It just wasn't enough.
Florida made 11 of 12 free throws in the final 1:09 to close it out.
"We need these kinds of wins," Florida's Kenny Boynton said. "In the past we let some home wins slip away. I think we learned from those."
The Gators really struggled from 3-point range. Boynton was 4 of 8 from behind the arc. His teammates were 3 of 20 from there.
"It's not going to pretty every night," Florida's Erving Walker said. "South Carolina did a good job of scrambling and switching defenses."
The Gamecocks had opportunities to complete the comeback. Maybe the toughest to swallow was when Walker came up with a loose ball — the Gators seemingly got all of them — and found Brad Beal slicing through the lane. Beal dunked it with authority, got fouled and completed the three-point play to put the Gators up 59-50 with 3:46 to play.
Beal finished with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Walker had 14 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Boynton led the Gators (18-4, 6-1) with 24 points.
Florida built its big lead with a huge rebounding advantage and by making four of their first seven 3-point attempts. But the Gators went cold from long range in the second half and finished 7 of 28 from behind the arc.
South Carolina couldn't take advantage.
The Gamecocks whittled the lead to five several times in the final few minutes. Brenton Williams had a chance to make it a five-point game again with 1:13 remaining, but he missed the first of two free throws. Williams also had a costly turnover on the previous possession. He was 2-of-9 shooting.
"We just couldn't get over that hump every time we cut the lead down," Harris said. "We were always in that same spot, so it was hard for us to get over that hump."
Florida dominated the opening 10 minutes.
The Gators made 3-pointers, got nearly every loose ball and took advantage of a 14-1 rebounding margin to build a 27-10 lead.
Even when Florida did miss a shot, it got just about every rebound. Florida ended the first half with 14 offensive boards — more than coach Billy Donovan's team had in its previous three games combined.
"The main thing that really hurt us the most was rebounding," Harris said. "That is what killed us the most."
The Gamecocks eventually settled down.
Brian Richardson hit a 3-pointer and a jumper, and then Cooke found his stroke. Cooke sank a mid-range shot, and then converted a three-point play on the next possession. Cooke flipped in a shot over his head, got fouled and knocked down the free throw.
RJ Slawson continued South Carolina's late surge with a layup in the final minute. The Gamecocks ended the half on a 9-1 run and suddenly trailed 37-28 after looking like they would get blown out.
Cooke made it a six-point game, 37-31, with a three-point play to open the second half.
The Gators responded, though.
Walker made consecutive floaters in the lane, and Beal tipped in a miss. The game went back and forth the rest of the way. The biggest difference was Florida started making free throws, finishing 23 for 32 from the stripe.
"We let up," Boynton said. "In the first half we were hitting shots and everybody was into it. In the second half, we stopped hitting them and had defensive letdowns. ... But we found a way to win, and that's all that matters."