Johnson’s 3-pointer lifts No. 18 South Carolina to 82-76 comeback victory over No. 24 Florida

South Carolina guard Meechie Johnson (5) celebrates with guard Jacobi Wright (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Artie Walker Jr.)

South Carolina guard Meechie Johnson (5) celebrates with guard Jacobi Wright (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida Saturday, March 2, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Artie Walker Jr.)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina coach Lamont Paris never believed he had a last-place team and has watched with a grin as his 18th-ranked Gamecocks have proved him right.

The latest evidence came Saturday when Meechie Johnson had 25 points, including a go-ahead 3-pointer with 43.4 seconds left, to fuel South Carolina’s rally from 10 points down in the second half in an 82-76 victory over No. 24 Florida.

“Lots of doubts around these guys,” Paris, the second-year coach, said with a grin. His team was picked by the media to finish last in the Southeastern Conference in October. Now, entering the final week of the regular season, the Gamecocks (24-5, 12-4) have a chance to win a conference title.

“I knew what we had, I knew what our guys were about,” said Paris, who went 11-21 his first season a year ago. “I knew we had winning guys, who wanted to win.”

That was evident in the second half when they came back from 56-46 down to win for the 10th time in their past 12 games.

Johnson led the way with 21 of his points in the final 20 minutes. He also had two critical steals as Florida tried to regain the lead. Johnson had three tie-breaking shots in the final five minutes, including his 3-pointer from the left elbow extended that put the Gamecocks ahead for good.

“I just felt good. I felt confident,” said Johnson, the Ohio State transfer.

The Gators (20-9, 10-6) had relied on strong defense to build their second-half lead, but could not contain Johnson, the team’s top scorer this season. His driving layup with five minutes to play gave South Carolina its first lead since early in the game, 65-63.

Florida tied things at 74-all with 1:12 left on Walter Clayton Jr.’s sixth 3-pointer before Johnson struck for the game-winner.

Collin Murray-Boyles, a freshman, finished with his first career double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

Jacobi Wright had 16 points, 12 in the first half, to keep South Carolina close enough to rally down the stretch.

Clayton had 20 points and Zyon Pullin scored 18 for the Gators.

THE BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators, tied for fourth in the SEC coming in, had won nine of their past 11 and looked on the way to another victory. Their late fade may have cost them a shot at a top-four seed and a little extra rest before the SEC Tournament in two weeks.

South Carolina: The Gamecocks, third in the league, have a legit shot at coming away with an SEC title if they can beat No. 4 Tennessee in the season’s last home game.

DEFENSIVE CHANGE

Part of South Carolina’s comeback was a change in defense to a 1-3-1 zone. The switch worked with the Gamecocks forcing eight of Florida’s 12 turnovers in the winning rally. “We weren’t that aggressive in attacking it and we turned it over a lot,” Florida coach Todd Golden said.

UP NEXT

Florida: Closes its home season against Alabama on Tuesday night.

South Carolina: Ends its home season against Tennessee on Wednesday night.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball

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