ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida coach Mike White has said it countless times, the players have reiterated it just as much. The strength of this Gators team is the depth of guys capable of stepping up and directing the course of a game on a given night.
On Saturday it was Justin Leon’s turn.
The senior forward scored 8 straight points late in the first half to swing all the momentum to Florida and then unleashed another scoring blitz on Virginia early in the second half to put this second-round NCAA Tournament game out of reach early.
In all, the No. 4-seeded Gators rattled off 21-straight points leading into and coming out of halftime on the way to a momentous 65-39 win over the No. 5 Cavaliers to the delight of a decidedly pro-Florida crowd inside the Amway Center.
With that, the Gators (26-8) advance to the Sweet 16 and will take on Wisconsin (27-9) inside Madison Square Garden on Friday at a time to be announced.
“I’m really proud. I guess I’ll get that out of the way,” White said afterward. “It’s a group I’ve been proud of all year. I mean, this group, we might miss some shots, we might mess up some execution, we might have a lack of communication or an error in following the scouting report from time to time or what have you, but this group plays really hard. They play for each other. They play the right way.”
Leon, a senior forward who was committed to White at Louisiana Tech out of junior college before following him instead to Florida, had scored just 3 points in the Gators’ NCAA Tournament opener Thursday against East Tennessee State. He came in averaging 6.9 points.
But, man, did he pick a perfect time to seize the spotlight with 14 points and a career-high 10 rebounds. Fellow forward Devin Robinson added 14 points and 11 rebounds, meanwhile, and nine different Gators scored in all.
“It feels good, especially with me being a junior college guy and I can be able to say I’m going to the Sweet 16,” Leon said. “Especially, I guess like tonight’s game, (to) kind of give my team a boost and lead them to it, it feels pretty good — great actually.”
Florida was up 19-17 with a little more 3 minutes left in the opening half when Leon tossed in a short hook shot and drew a foul. He hit that free throw and then 2 more free throws the next time down court. Two possessions later he drained a 3-pointer from the right side as the orange and blue crowd really came to life.
The Gators turned that into a 12-0 run to close the half when center Kevarrius Hayes corralled an airballed 3-pointer from Kasey Hill and tossed it through the net. Hayes then threw down a powerful dunk off a sweet assist from Hill just before the buzzer to send Florida into halftime with a 31-17 lead.
“I felt like that was like the moment where you kind of realized everything was coming together,” Hayes said.
The momentum wasn’t lost over the break, either.
The Gators opened the second half with 9 more consecutive points, including back-to-back 3-pointers from Leon.
First he drained one from the left wing and held his followthrough while watching his latest big shot fall through the net. The next 3 came from the right corner and this time he held his arms down low while mugging a bit for the camera and enjoying every bit of his breakout moment on the national stage.
As were all the Gators for that matter.
“It was bound to happen,” Robinson said of Leon’s performance. “Me and him shoot after every practice every day, and it was just a matter of time for him to bust out of his cocoon and flourish. I mean, we saw glimpses of that last year, we saw glimpses of it this year and I’m really proud. I’m happy for him.”
Leon was asked if he’s considered yet that he’ll be watching those highlights for the rest of his life and be able to potentially show his children or grandchildren one day what he did on the national stage.
“I (haven’t) necessarily thought all the way that far, but you are right. I definitely will be doing that,” he said with a big smile. “So it’s great. It’s pretty special to say I’ve been here because I think out of my immediate family I’m like the only one who I guess has been on a stage this big with anything.”
That 21-0 run made it a 40-17 game and the stunned Cavaliers (23-11) wouldn’t be able to mount any sort of comeback.
Virginia came into the game as the NCAA’s leader in fewest points allowed, holding teams to 56.1 per game.
It was Florida’s night, though, and this Gators team that came into the NCAA Tournament on fumes after losing three of four games now looks to have regained its full confidence.
And plenty of momentum.
“I think we got that edge back that we had in the middle of the year during that (9-game) winning streak,” point guard Chris Chiozza said. “We (were) beating teams pretty well, and I think we got it back to that with that with this performance and I hope we can carry that through the rest of this tournament.”
A well-earned smile for Florida's Justin Leon … pic.twitter.com/STtLf9tHr4
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) March 19, 2017
Player of the game: Justin Leon
Leon’s 14 points were more than he had scored in the last three games combined and his best single-game total since dropping 18 against Texas A&M on Feb. 11. It marked his ninth double-digit scoring performance of the season.
He finished 4-of-8 shooting, scoring all of those points during that most pivotal stretch.
White has continually lauded Leon as the hardest-working player on the team all season and one of the driving forces in the team’s improved chemistry this year.
After the game Saturday night, he offered another perspective on the senior forward.
“He made a mistake during the game, Justin did. I said, ‘What is he doing?'” White recalled. “I think it was (assistant coach Darris Nichols who) said, ‘Coach, two years ago he was trying to get to the Junior College National Championship. He was trying to get to Hutch (Hutchinson, Kan.). Give him a break.’ Obviously we were playing with a lead thee and it was lighthearted.
“It’s amazing how far the guy’s come. It’s amazing. He gets the double-double and goes 3-of-6 from 3, but this was his best defensive effort as well. … Tonight was his best game as a Gator.”
That 21-0 run, of course. It was Florida’s finest stretch of basketball all season, on its biggest stage.
Not only were the Gators unleashing on the offensive end, they were stifling Virginia on the defensive end. The Cavaliers missed 10 straight shots and 13 of 14 over the end of the first half and start of the second as the game slipped from their grasp.
Key stat line
Virginia just couldn’t find any rhythm on the offensive end. The Cavs shot 29.6 percent from the field overall, hit just 1-of-15 3-pointers, only got to the line for 7 free throw attempts and finished with their lowest scoring output of the season.
“We all locked in and was like, ‘We need to defend.’ We had something to prove,” Robinson said. “They said they’re the best defensive team and we just tried to outdo them on defense.”
What’s next for Gators
Florida advances to play No. 8-seeded Wisconsin, which earned its spot in the Sweet 16 with a 65-62 upset of No. 1 Villanova.
The Badgers knocked off the defending national champions led by senior forward Nigel Hayes (19 points) and senior point guard Bronson Koenig (17), who have now been to four Sweet 16s (and two Final Fours) with the Badgers.
For the season, Koenig averages a team-best 14.5 points per game, Hayes averages 13.8 points and 6.6 rebounds and 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore forward Ethan Happ averages 13.8 points and 9.1 rebounds per game.
Many felt the Badgers (27-9) were seeded to low after losing to Michigan in the Big Ten championship game.
Florida-Virginia box score