GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On paper, Florida’s final game before SEC play was supposed to be a breeze.
The opponent: Incarnate Word, a middle-of-the-road team from the Southland Conference ranked No. 298 in the RPI.
The result: Another game that was too close for comfort early on before the Gators figured things out in the second half.
After a tight first half, Florida pulled away for the 75-60 win Friday, the Gators’ second consecutive win after dropping four of their previous five.
Even with a second-half surge, Florida (8-4) still shot a paltry 39.1 percent from the field (25 for 64) and 25 percent from 3 (9 for 36). Friday marked the fourth time in the past six games the Gators failed to make more than 40 percent of their shots. Meanwhile, Incarnate Word made 47.8 percent of their shots.
“We’ve shot like this for a while,” coach Mike White said. “We’ve defended like this all year. It’s who we are.”
And that’s a problem White knows the team needs to fix fast, especially with conference play now on the horizon.
White knows his team has the potential to play at a high level. That was evident during the first two weeks when the Gators scored more than 100 points in four of their first five games, defeated then-No. 17 Gonzaga and came close to upsetting then-No. 1 Duke.
In the six games since the Duke loss to close out the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Ore., Florida is shooting 38.9 percent from the field and 28.7 percent from beyond the arc.
“We’re not playing with the level of confidence right now that we were,” White said. “We’re kind of searching.”
That was evident early on Friday, as the offensive struggles were on full display during several stretches.
The Gators closed out the first half making 4 of their final 19 attempts before intermission. The lone highlight in that stretch was a Chris Chiozza alley-oop dunk off a steal and pass from KeVaughn Allen. Florida held a 37-34 lead heading into the break after Incarnate Word’s Shawn Johnson hit a buzzer-beating 3 from half court.
“[White] actually didn’t scream at us at all,” Hudson said. “It was actually more disappointing that way.”
White added of his halftime message: “I’ve shot a lot of bullets with these guys already, and it’s not even Christmas. When your team has that look in terms of their confidence level offensively, I didn’t think yelling at them was the right button to push.”
The Cardinals (5-5) tied the score at 37 on a three-point play by Charles Brown III before the Gators began finding the offensive life they showcased in the first two weeks of the season and have been yearning for ever since. There was a 14-2 run immediately after the game-tying free throw and then a 17-2 run later in the frame to take a 20-point lead with 8:27 left to play. Chiozza scored 8 of his game-high 16 points in that stretch.
In those two scoring stretches, Florida made 11 of its 14 shots for a 78.6-percent efficiency. For the rest of the game, the Gators shot 28 percent (14 for 50).
“It just got us going,” Chiozza said. “We were struggling all night offensively and we were getting open shots, as good of shots as we’ve had all year and we couldn’t get the ball to go in. Half of them went all the way down and went back out.”
Jalen Hudson added 13 points and a career-high 6 assists in 31 minutes. Egor Koulechov scored 12 points, 10 of which came in the second half.
And now, SEC play begins. Florida opens conference play against Vanderbilt on Dec. 30. Tipoff is set for 4 p.m.