JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Two games, two lopsided wins so far for the Florida basketball team.
The Gators again used their defensive pressure to set up a momentum-seizing run and never looked back, closing out a 76-54 win over Mercer on Sunday night at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
That follows a 21-point win over Florida Gulf Coast in the season opener.
The difference in this one was an 18-2 spurt to close out the first half. The score was never close again, and while Florida coach Mike White had some qualms with the way his team finished the game, his counterpart came away highly impressed by the Gators.
“You can tell they still have another place they can go. They definitely haven’t arrived yet, but coach is doing a great job with that squad and they’re going to get better,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. “… I think that team’s going to be really special, and they’ve only begun. I’ve seen a lot of good teams. I’m an old dude as you can see by my gray hair, and that team has the pieces to be special. …
“I will definitely enjoy watching them now that I won’t be playing them.”
Forward Justin Leon came on strong in the second half with 13 of his team-high 17 points after halftime, while forward Devin Robinson provided the early spark and finished with 12 points, 9 rebounds and 2 steals.
Whether it be White or the players, the Gators have stated consistently that they need to be a defensively-minded team to be successful after struggling with their shooting a year ago.
“We’re not an offensive team at all. We’re not going to come out here and try to outscore you. We want to try to hang our hats on defense and let our defense turn into offense,” Robinson said. “That’s what the culture has been for a while, so we’re just going to try to keep that up and try to do that every game.”
So far, that formula has worked out well. They had forced 12 turnovers by halftime and held a 24-12 rebounding advantage at that point while building a 36-14 lead.
“The 14 points hadn’t happened very often to a team I’ve coached because I like to think we try to score the ball, and we couldn’t the first half at all. We couldn’t get anything going,” Hoffman said.
While White is happy to be 2-0, though, he wished his team had played the second half with the same defensive focus it did in that first half.
That mitigated some of his excitement after the second straight lopsided victory.
“I’m not as jacked up right now as I was after the Florida Gulf Coast win despite the amount of respect I have for Coach and his staff and the job they do with the Mercer program. Just because of the way we finished the second half,” White said. “Just a little bit disappointed in the inability to maintain our defensive edge. …
“You don’t want some of those habits to creep in, but I tip my hat to our guys. The last 15 minutes of the first half, we were on it defensively. We were really good, and if we’re going to be a really good team, which we have the potential to be a good team, you’ve got to do that for 40 minutes. This early in the season especially, you’re as focused on improvements as you are wins and losses.”
Player of the game
Forward Justin Leon.
The senior finished strong Sunday night to end up as Florida’s leading scorer with 17 points, hitting 6-of-10 shots (including 3-of-5 from 3-point range) while grabbing 5 rebounds.
His previous career-high was 16 points against Texas A&M last January.
RELATED: More on Leon’s big game
Stat line of the game
Florida’s dominance on the boards was the biggest factor Sunday night. The Gators turned their 47-32 rebounding edge into a 24-12 differential on second-chance points, with that most pronounced in the first half.
The other stat of note was again the free throw shooting as they hit 24-of-30 for the game (80 percent). Through two games, Florida is shooting 78.6 percent from the foul line after ranking 323rd nationally last season while shooting a dreadful 64.7 percent.
The Gators shot 80 percent from the line in just three games during the 2015-16 regular season.
“Shooting it better. Hopefully a season-long trend. We’d take that in a heartbeat, but it feels good to see that thing go in,” White said. “You earn your way to the foul line and to cash in I know has got to feel good for our guys, especially the guys that have struggled a little bit in the past and are seeing the rewards of their labor.”
Florida closed the first half on an 18-2 run to take full control. Leon started it with a pair of free throws, but the momentum really started building a couple minutes later when Robinson drained a 3 from the left wing, Kevarrius Hayes delivered a block on the other end and KeVaughn Allen followed with a fast-break layup and free throw.
The aforementioned rebounding advantaged led to a 16-0 edge in second-chance points at the break and really showed late in the half.
After Canyon Barry knocked down a 3 to make it 29-14, Allen stole the ball and Barry was fouled after a rebound and second-chance attempt. He knocked down both free throws. Florida’s defensive pressure then forced a Mercer traveling violation, and after Allen and Hayes both missed shots on the other end Robinson got yet another rebound and scored on the putback to fire up the Gators’ bench. He was also fouled on the play and hit the free throw, making it 34-14.
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) November 14, 2016
And finally, after forcing the Bears into backcourt violation, the Gators had the last shot in the half. It came down to an inbounds opportunity with 0.6 seconds on the clock, and Hayes was able score quick off Allen’s feed.
That 36-14 halftime lead was an impressive statement by this basketball team.
— Landon Watnick (@LandonWatnick) November 14, 2016
What Mike White said
Highlights from White’s postgame news conference can be found here. The full video is below.
Florida travels to Lakeland, Fla., on Thursday to take on St. Bonaventure.
The Bonnies went 22-9 last season, finishing with a first-round exit in the NIT. They return just two starters in junior point guard Jaylen Adams (17.9 points, 5.0 assists per game in 2015-16) and junior guard/forward Idris Taqqee (5.1 PPG).
The Bonnies opened the season with a 92-82 win over St. Francis (Pa.) as Adams and forward Denzel Gregg each scored 23 and guard Matt Mobley dropped in 21.
Florida vs. Mercer box score