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Sports >  NCAA basketball

Versatile Keyontae Johnson is ‘Key’ to Florida’s late-season surge

Florida forward Keyontae Johnson (11) dribbles around Tennessee guard/forward Yves Pons (35) during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. (Calvin Mattheis / Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
Florida forward Keyontae Johnson (11) dribbles around Tennessee guard/forward Yves Pons (35) during an NCAA college basketball game in Knoxville, Tenn., on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. (Calvin Mattheis / Knoxville News Sentinel via AP)
By Mark Long Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Keyontae Johnson is deceptively quick for a power forward. Just ask anyone who’s tried to guard him.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore keeps blowing by defenders, getting to the basket and finishing about as well as anyone in the Southeastern Conference. Throw in a deft touch from long range and it’s no surprise that he’s emerged as Florida’s most dynamic men’s basketball player this season.

He’s been at his best over the last 10 games, averaging 16.4 points and 8.7 rebounds while helping the Gators solidify an NCAA Tournament berth for the fourth straight year.

Florida (19-11, 11-6 SEC) has gone 7-3 since ending January on a three-game losing streak, improving its NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranking to No. 29 following a 14-point victory at Georgia on Wednesday. The NET is what the selection committee primarily uses to seed the NCAA Tournament field.

Johnson finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season and fifth in Florida’s last eight games.

“His confidence is growing,” Gators coach Mike White said. “He’s not as confident as we’d like him to be. . I’m not sure he knows how good he can be. He can attack close-outs better than anyone on our team. He has a really good first step and his increased confidence from 3-point range adds to that as well.”

Johnson ranks third in the league in shooting, connecting on 54.2% of his shots, and ranks second on the team from 3-point range. He’s made 29 of 78 (37.2%) from behind the arc heading into Saturday’s home and regular-season finale against No. 6 Kentucky (24-6, 14-3).

He’s averaging 14.1 points and 7.3 rebounds while starting all 30 games and has been on the bench just five minutes in the last three games combined.

He’s second on the team in rebounding, third in assists (46) and first in steals (37). His defense is at an all-time high, able to match up with guards on the perimeter and big men in the post.

But it’s that initial burst that gets everyone’s attention. Johnson’s long-range shot is accurate enough to make opponents respect his pump fake, and when he gets defenders off their feet, he dribbles to the rim and can finish with either hand.

“We had nobody to guard him,” said Arkansas coach Eric Musselman, whose team sent Johnson to the foul line a career-high 17 times last month. “He’s a really hard matchup. It wasn’t like we told our guys that he couldn’t dribble-drive. We told them he’s one of the best dribble-drivers in all of college basketball at the (power forward) spot.

“But if you’re a lot quicker than somebody and you’re stronger, you’re probably going to get 17 foul shots.”

Johnson’s development coincides with Florida’s late push. The Gators were one of the most consistently inconsistent teams in the SEC for the first three months of the season.

They would look good one half and awful the next. They blew a 16-point lead at home to Mississippi State and had to rally from down 21 and 22, respectively, to beat Alabama and Georgia. They also trailed Georgia by 13 early in the second meeting Wednesday.

Johnson was a catalyst in each of those comebacks. He also set a career high for scoring in consecutive home games against Arkansas and LSU.

“This is two straight years we haven’t been able to guard him,” LSU coach Will Wade said. “He loves when he sees the purple and yellow. He just lights up.”

Johnson acknowledges his sudden surge, crediting teammates for having more confidence in him and White for continuing to demand more.

“I’m just playing at my pace, playing with confidence, staying in that moment and letting the game come to me,” Johnson said.

White approaches Johnson just before every tip and reminds him to play hard. It’s the one criticism White has of his leading scorer.

“He is very talented, and when he is playing really hard, he is a terrific player,” White said. “He is getting better and better. He is gaining confidence and he is growing. His whole thing is motor, and he knows it.”

If Johnson gets his motor going, that first step – and Florida, for that matter – becomes nearly impossible to defend.

“I feel like the game has slowed down,” Johnson said. “I just try to make smart plays for my team, don’t go out there and do too much. Just do everything, the little stuff that coaches want me to do in practice, and it’s carrying over to the game.”

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