It might have been defense that got Eric Hester on the Gators coaches’ radar as a recruit from Clearwater, but it was his offense Wednesday night at LSU that made Florida basketball fans take notice for the first time.
Hester had 14 points all season in limited minutes before an incredible performance in Baton Rouge. He was 5-for-5 on his 3-point attempts in a breakout 16-point game while helping the Gators win 106-71 win. In the process, Hester put his potential on full display.
Hester received extra playing time with senior guard Canyon Barry sidelined by a sprained ankle, so it’s not a stat line he’s likely to repeat often this season. But Wednesday’s game was an encouraging indication of Hester’s development toward a larger role in the Gators’ backcourt next season.
“He hasn’t played a lot with the ball in his hands making plays in game situations. I’m very pleased with his progression,” Gators coach Mike White said after the game.
Back in Florida, Oldsmar Christian School basketball coach John Bianchi caught wind of Hester’s breakout performance on Twitter and watched the highlights. Bianchi was as impressed as anyone by the transformation he saw in his former player.
“Offensively he showed last night his shooting’s gotten better. In high school he was so athletic and got to the rim very well and his mid-range (game) in high school was one of the best things about him also. He knew that coming into college he had to work on his 3-point shot,” Bianchi said.
Bianchi was an assistant coach at Oldsmar while Hester was there, taking over the program this season. He saw the foundation of the guard’s evolution when Hester returned home before the start of the school year.
“We hadn’t seen him for two months because he went to work out (at Florida over the summer), and when he came back to Oldsmar for a couple weeks before he left he was shooting … we haven’t ever seen him shoot that good,” Bianchi said. “I could tell just within those two months how much stronger and how much better his shot got just from being up there in the summer session.”
As Bianchi recalls off the top of his head, he says Hester averaged around 10.8 points, 5.6 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2 steals per game as a high school senior.
Fitting at Florida
Again, it was the defense that made Hester a desirable fit for White’s system at Florida.
“In high school he was by far the best on-ball defender in the state and one of the tops in the country,” Bianchi said. “He’s very athletic, super long, has a big wing span.”
Hester always wanted to play at Florida, Bianchi said. Hester and Oldsmar Christian teammate Dontay Bassett (who is out with injury this season) both committed to the Gators as White’s first official recruits upon taking over the program.
A 6-foot-3 freshman, Hester had played double-digit minutes twice before Wednesday night and played 4 minutes with no points in the Gators’ previous 7 games. He played 17 minutes in the blowout at LSU and had 4 assists and 2 steals in addition to his hot shooting and 16 points.
By going 5-for-5 from 3-point range, he because the first Gator to shoot 100 percent from beyond the arc with at least that many attempts since Walter Hodge went 5-for-5 against Stetson during the 2006-07 season. He’s the first Florida freshman to do it since Matt Walsh went 7-for-7 against Bethune-Cookman during the 2002-03 campaign. The Gators’ sports information office couldn’t find another example of a freshman achieving the feat in SEC play while looking as far back as 1996-97.
Again, it was just one game, but a highly-encouraging one for a player who could become a bigger piece in the rotation next season.
“The coaches, I’ve been in contact with a lot, and they said Eric keeps getting better and better,” Bianchi said. “He’s one of the hardest workers and he got a chance to show that last night. … (He has) said it’s a whole different atmosphere and he has to work twice as hard as he’s ever had to work. He said everybody’s just as athletic, just as strong, just as quick, just as fast and it’s made him work harder and want it more than he ever has.”