ORLANDO, Fla. — Given Florida’s recent struggles, the predominantly orange-and-blue-clad crowd couldn’t have felt good seeing the Gators slump into halftime Thursday with a narrow 1-point lead and then fall behind in the opening minutes of the second half.
Coach Mike White clearly wasn’t pleased at that point, calling a timeout in the final minute of that opening half to set up a possession before shaking his head on the sideline as it unraveled.
But all was well in the end.
No. 4-seeded Florida found its rhythm down the stretch while pulling away from No. 13 East Tennessee State for an 80-65 win in the teams’ NCAA Tournament opener at the Amway Center.
“Coach obviously wasn’t happy with our performance at the end of the first half, but he didn’t have to say much,” forward Devin Robinson said. “… He just laid it out for us like, ‘Hey, if you all want to go home, lay it down right now. If you want to advance, these are things you need to do to be successful.’ We listened to him, took that in and came out with a big second half.”
It’s the first NCAA tourney win for the Gators (25-8) since 2014 and the first of White’s head coaching career. They advance to face No. 5 Virginia on Saturday. ETSU (27-8), meanwhile, was making its first tournament appearance since 2010.
“It’s great for Florida. It’s great for Florida basketball,” White said. “I mean, Florida was going to get back regardless of who’s sitting right here. It’s really neat personally. My staff’s all fired up. … (But) I’m way more pleased for our guys, especially our seniors, last go-round.”
Robinson matched a career-high with 24 points, senior point guard Kasey Hill added 14 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists (with 4 turnovers) and junior point guard Chris Chiozza scored all 14 of his points after halftime.
Robinson, in particular, was terrific on the biggest stage of his career. He played probably his best game of the season and got the Gators going when they needed it most.
ETSU grabbed the lead a couple times in the opening minutes of the second half, first on a T.J. Cromer 3-pointer and then a Tevin Glass layup to go ahead 37-35, but that’s where the game seemed to pivot sharply.
Senior forward Justin Leon drained a 3-pointer from the right wing to give the lead back to Florida and Robinson later followed with back-to-back 3s on consecutive possessions to make it a 44-37 game.
It didn’t get any closer than 5 points the rest of the way and that pro-Gators crowd came to life watching the lead swell larger.
A Chiozza rebound and fastbreak layup made it 57-43 and prompted a timeout from the Buccaneers.
But the tide wasn’t going to be turned again. On the first possession following the timeout, Kevarrius Hayes stole the ball from Cromer and finished on the other end with an emphatic dunk to make it 59-43 and really bring the fans to their feet.
Just like that, those first-half struggles were a distant memory.
After hitting 7 of their first 8 shots, the Gators had made just 5 of 20 the rest of the half while letting the Buccaneers back into the game. But only for so long. While Florida started surging again in the second half, ETSU hit just 1 of 14 shots during one stretch as any thoughts of an upset quickly faded.
“The first half we struggled defensively. We were just average. We really pride ourself on the defensive end,” Chiozza said. “So when we got those stops early in the second half, it allowed us to get out in transition some more like the first half. It got us comfortable offensively, slowed the game down a little bit and we were able to knock down some open shots again.”
They’ll hope their recent struggles in general are also behind them. After losing three of their last four games, including an early exit in the SEC tournament, Florida will look to build off its strong showing Thursday.
Even though leading scorer KeVaughn Allen (7 points, 1-of-11 shooting) didn’t make a field goal until nearly 4 minutes into the second half, and even though second-leading scorer Canyon Barry (7 points, 1-of-4) were quiet Thursday, the Gators showed that depth that has carried them most of the season.
“I think that’s something this team has kind of been built on all year, (that) on any given night any one person can step up,” Barry said. “Obviously tonight Devin stepped up, Kevarrius stepped up, Cheese (Chiozza) stepped up. So just moving forward, if we keep that going and hopefully all of us have a good game at once, we can beat anyone in the country.”
Player of the game: Devin Robinson
Robinson was dialed in from the start. He scored 8 of Florida’s first 14 points, including 3 dunks, and as mentioned, came through big in the second half as well.
The 24 points tied the career high he set earlier this season against LSU, and the final 2 came on one last dunk in the waning moments. He finished 10-of-17 from the field and also grabbed 7 rebounds.
“My teammates just found me. I just came out here and I knew that we had to win or go home so my teammates found me in the right position, they gave me the confidence and I just let the ball fly,” Robinson said. “… The goal just got bigger for me and I just kept letting it go.”
That sequence of 3 straight 3-pointers early in the second half gave all the momentum back to Florida.
On the second of Robinson’s back-to-back 3s, he jogged straight to the top of the key and seemed to indicate to Hill that he wanted the shot.
That 9-0 run put the Gators ahead, 44-37, at the time and it was never all that close again.
Florida had been just 1-of-10 from 3-point range in the first half.
Key stat line
Hayes (7 points, 7 rebounds and 2 blocks) also set a career-high with 6 steals and the Gators had 12 in all. That helped contribute to their 20-5 edge in points off turnovers.
“There’s no way to explain it really,” Hayes said of his stat line. “I guess being very active around the ball and things worked out.”
What’s next for Gators
Florida advances to a Round-of-32 matchup Saturday with No. 5 Virginia, which overcame an ugly start while closing out a 76-71 win over No. 12 UNC Wilmington on Thursday.
The underdog Seahawks had a 15-point lead before the Cavaliers closed the first half on a 16-1 run to take control.
It remained close down the stretch, but the combination of London Perrantes (24 points on 9-of-14 shooting) and Marial Shayok (23 points on 8-of-14 shooting) was too much to overcome.
Virginia is 23-10 overall, but just 7-7 over its last 14 games.
Perrantes leads the team with 12.5 points per game.
Florida-East Tennessee State box score