By Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Erik Murphy scored a career-high 27 points and grabbed a career-best 12 rebounds to help the 13th-ranked Florida Gators take the first step Friday toward trying to add a Southeastern Conference tournament title to their regular season championship by beating LSU 80-58.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive presented Florida coach Billy Donovan with the regular season trophy before tipoff. Then the Gators (25-6) started working toward their first tournament title since 2007 when they wrapped up a three-peat. They will play either Tennessee or Alabama in the semifinals Saturday.
Scottie Wilbekin added 16 points, matching his career-best with four 3-pointers. Michael Frazier II had 11 and Patric Young 10 for Florida.
Ninth-seeded LSU (19-12) tried to keep up with the rested Gators but looked a step slow with too many shots just short a day after beating Georgia to advance.
Charles Carmouche led the Tigers with 14 points.
Florida dominated LSU with a 47-27 edge on the boards and easily outshot the Tigers as the Gators hit better from 3-point range (11 of 20, 55 percent) than they did overall (29 of 57, 50.9 percent). LSU shot 33.3 percent (18 of 54).
The Gators missed their last 11 shots in losing at Kentucky to wrap up the regular season for their third straight road loss in SEC play. They had no such problems against LSU, especially not with Murphy scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the first 22 minutes. They led 43-28 at halftime and pushed that lead to as much as 35 when Murphy scored seven straight points, the last with 8:41 left for a 73-38 lead.
Murphy got Florida going as he scored in the opening minute, and the Gators hit five of their first eight shots. They did just about everything they wanted whether it was driving to the basket or hitting from outside. Even when they did miss, they usually got the rebound for second and third chances.
LSU led twice, the last at 5-4 on a layup by Johnny O’Bryant III. Rosario answered with a layup with 18:02 to go putting the Gators ahead to stay at 6-5. Murphy followed with his own layup and then a 3-pointer. The Tigers stayed close with Carmouche hitting his first three shots all behind the arc, the third coming midway through the half to pull LSU within 18-17.
Wilbekin hit a jumper, then stole the ball feeding Frazier for a bucket. Wilbekin then capped a 9-0 spurt with a 3 pushing Florida’s lead to double digits. With O’Bryant going 1 of 5 in the half, the Tigers struggled to score inside and settled for too many jumpers. O’Bryant finished with eight points.
The final seconds summed up the first half. The Tigers dribbled looking for a final shot that Hickey bounced off the rim, then Frazier beat the buzzer with a 3-pointer giving the Gators their biggest lead at 43-28 at halftime.
In the second half, the Gators even worked out the final kink in their game hitting their first four free throws as the nation’s top team in scoring margin just kept pushing the lead bigger. LSU managed a quick late flurry whittling down the final score but never got closer than 22 in the final minute.