FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas surprised Florida the first time the teams met this month, using an unexpected offensive display to ambush the Gators in the opening minute and hold on down the stretch to collect an 80-69 win.
There’s no chance the Razorbacks (17-9, 8-5 in Southeastern Conference) will sneak up and surprise Florida (21-4, 11-2 in SEC) when the teams meet in the O’Connell Center at 6 tonight. The Gators have been waiting for the rematch.
“We have a very strong desire to beat them,” Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin told the media in Gainesville, Fla., earlier this week. “Obviously we’re going to be ready for them because they beat us pretty good in Arkansas.”
Arkansas, less than 48 hours after its last-second win against Georgia, is back on the road for one of its most difficult tests tonight. The Razorbacks, who became the first team to beat Florida in SEC play on Feb. 5, will face an opponent that is 12-0 in home games this season and looking for revenge after being toppled in Bud Walton Arena.
There’s more to it than that, too. The Gators also are coming off a frustrating loss at Missouri on Tuesday night. Florida was in control of the game in the second half, but crumbled down the stretch to suffer their second conference loss.
So it’s clear Arkansas’ three-game win streak will be put to the test by a Florida team motivated to get back on track as it tries to win an SEC Championship.
“You always talk about challenges. This is the ultimate challenge,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said after the 62-60 win against Georgia on Thursday night. “You’re going into the O’Connell Center and those guys will be ready. They will.”
Nearly everything went right for Arkansas in the first meeting between the teams.
The Razorbacks went 15-for-20 from the field in the first half, while Florida misfired again and again. Arkansas amassed as much as a 27-point lead against the Gators, who had rolled to eight straight wins to open conference play.
It resulted in Arkansas’ best resume win of the season and one that kicked off the Razorbacks’ current stretch of success. Arkansas is has won five of six conference games to keep its slim hopes of playing in the NCAA Tournament alive.
A road win at Florida would be quite an accomplishment for the Razorbacks, who are 1-8 outside the state after beating Auburn. Arkansas guard B.J. Young said the Razorbacks know the atmosphere will be very different tonight.
“I think they will be motivated,” Young said. “I know I would be with breaking that streak or whatever they had. But we are going to be motivated to and we want to show it wasn’t a fluke or whatever they say. We just need to take energy on the road and play as hard as we did here and try to get that ‘W’ down there at Florida.”
Arkansas is 2-8 in Gainesville since joining the SEC, but hasn’t won in the O’Connell Center since the 1994-95 season. Florida is undefeated at home this season and has beaten six SEC opponents by 26.5 points in the O’Connell Center.
Florida will try to run its home streak to 13 against the Razorbacks. But coach Billy Donovan balked at the notion the Gators are motivated by revenge against the Hogs.
“We had a chance to play the game up in Fayetteville, they beat us pretty handily,” Donovan said. “To me, that’s something that is behind us right now. It’s not like if we all of the sudden win the game we get the Fayetteville game back. It doesn’t work like that. That game is a loss. This is the next most important thing.”
Donovan hopes his team’s goal picking up an important win in what has become a tight race with Alabama (10-3) for the SEC’s regular season championship.
Arkansas would like to be part of the conversation as well with five games remaining in the regular season. Anderson and the Razorbacks know Florida will be ready for the rematch, but are confident they can pull off another upset.
“We’ve got a quick turnaround going to Florida,” Anderson said after the Georgia win. “But we’ve got opportunities. We’ve got opportunities to really do some things that are going to put us in great position in our conference.”
Arkansas (17-9) at No. 5 Florida (11-2)
• When: 6 tonight
• Where: O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla.
• TV/Radio: ESPNU/KABZ-FM 103.7
• Series: Florida leads 15-11; last meeting Arkansas 80, Florida 69 on Feb. 5