GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Devin Robinson hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but once it was mentioned to him, yeah, it was a nice change of pace to sleep in his own bed the night before a game.
“It’s actually weird not being in a hotel. I did feel kind of weird actually. I didn’t really think about that, but now I think about it, it was kind of weird waking up in my bed and having to come play the game. But it’s cool. I’ve got to get used to it,” he said.
After playing the first five weeks of the season away from home while the $64.5 million renovation project to its home gym continued, the Florida men’s basketball team finally debuted inside freshly completed Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Wednesday night.
And the Gators took to the new O’Dome quickly, racing out to a big early lead on the way to a 94-71 win over Little Rock.
Robinson dropped in a jumper on the team’s second possession and looked at home immediately on the way to scoring a career-best 21 points, even if the concept of playing a true home game might take some getting used to after traveling around the state to open the season.
“It was insane. It felt like I was home again,” the junior forward said. “Being on the road for all these games before, I just feel like I’m home.”
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) December 22, 2016
The announced crowd for the game was 10,655, which might have been a stretch considering there were still some empty seats — though not many — and the official capacity of the reconfigured arena is now listed at 10,133, down from 11,548 before.
But the fans certainly welcomed the Gators back in a big way.
“It was awesome. It was rocking in there. It was fun, it was loud and our guys fed off of it from the tip,” coach Mike White said. “I thought our guys played with tremendous energy and confidence and without question … the new arena and playing in front of our fans for the first time all season was a big factor.”
The renovation took nine months to complete, starting in earnest the middle of last March with the final touches still being finished right up until game day.
The previous seating was replaced by blue chair-back seats, a new videoboard over the center of the court now complements videoboards in all four corners and the overall lighting accentuates the fresh look of the place.
“I like how the lights are on the court. It feels like we’re on the stage and it’s like everybody’s paying attention to us on the court,” Robinson said. “It’s going to be nuts when we start playing some real competition in here and everybody starts packing the arena.”
Said point guard Kasey Hill: “It looks way different. It’s way brighter. The court is lighter too, it seems like. It’s nice.”
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) December 22, 2016
White, meanwhile, said it was an honor to be “a tiny part” of the process while sharing his appreciation for the administration — including former athletic director Jeremy Foley, who was in attendance — along with the donors, the Gators’ past coaches who established the program’s tradition of success and, of course, the construction crew for making the vision an on-schedule reality.
But just as he tried to make sure the daunting early travel schedule didn’t become an excuse for his team, he wanted to guard against them getting too caught up in the reopening.
“Coming into this game, the whole thing was our focus and where’s it going to be. There’s just so much more you’re dealing with even if it wasn’t a newly-renovated arena,” White said. “The fact that it’s our first home game and you’re walking in the hallway and you have people that you haven’t seen since last season that, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ There’s just so many more distractions in shootaround with some of our guys’ buddies and classmates coming to games that they haven’t been going to on the road, and then obviously with the built-in Christmas distraction or holidays distraction. This is when upsets happen in college basketball as often as any other time of the year because sometimes teams are half checked out. We all know that, and then of course the added distraction because it was (a big deal to open the arena). …
“I kept talking to our guys about not allowing it to be a party. This isn’t a party. Let our fans party. They deserve this. This is incredible, they’ll have fun. But if we’re not locked in on defending and jumping to the basketball and closing out and blocking out, rebounding and running our offense and the Arkansas Little Rock scouting report, then we’re selling ourselves short.”
In the end, everybody had a good time. Well, except for the team from Little Rock.
The Gators set a season-high with their 94 points and fired up the fans early and often.
It was an ideal unveiling and debut in every regard.
“I feel like it’s a great improvement. First walking in here, I couldn’t even believe it was the same building. It looks so much bigger and everything’s kind of spaced out,” center Kevarrius Hayes said afterward. “Stepping on the court, you get the same rush. You’re finally home, finally back in front of the fans. And then the whole entire student section was full. Just having everybody here to support our first home game, it really gave you a sense of what it means to be a Gator.”