ORLANDO, Fla. — Before Florida took the court Thursday afternoon for its NCAA Tournament opener, the coaches had one last pointed message for the players.
Actually, they didn’t have to say anything.
During the tournament selection show Sunday CBS analyst Seth Davis had picked the No. 4-seeded Gators to be upset by No. 13 East Tennessee State, and that clip was replayed on a projector for the team just before it exited the locker room for what would end up as an 80-65 win.
“You know, we’re supposed to be the first upset. We watched that before the game, rewatched that (from) when they did the selection show and they picked us to be the first upset in the tournament,” junior guard Chris Chiozza said. “We watched that and it gave us that little edge that we needed. We didn’t really need one because we lost two in a row, but that just added extra motivation to come out there and start the game off like we did.”
The Gators (25-8) jumped out to a quick 14-6 lead, but it wasn’t that easy. They were trailing early in the second half before seizing momentum and coasting to the lopsided win it became.
In the end, it was a nice statement from a Florida team that had lost three of its last four games, including a quick exit in the SEC tournament last week.
“We heard on ESPN and on all the other bracketology type stuff that we were going to be the first upset and that put a chip on our shoulders,” junior forward Devin Robinson said. “We knew we just had to come out here and prove everybody wrong once again. That put everything into perspective and we knew we just had to take care of business today.”
Robinson led that charge, matching his career high with 24 points while throwing down crowd-pleasing dunks early and draining a pair of pivotal 3-pointers during the Gators’ second-half surge.
He understood why some might have expected Florida to be vulnerable against a feisty mid-major foe like East Tennessee State. He just didn’t agree with the assessment.
“They probably saw that we lost three of the last four and (thought) we’re spiraling down here, but we’re just getting started,” Robinson said. “We knew that we just had to regroup as a team. We had a meeting when we got back to school, after we lost the Vandy game (in the SEC tournament). We just knew the next time we lose have to go home so we’re trying to just keeping going as much as we can.”
Said sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes: “Not many people have all the faith in us, so all we have is each other. Everybody in the locker room, coaches, staff. So we just play for each other and play as hard as we can.”
Florida advances to play No. 5-seed Virginia (23-10) on Saturday.
The Gators are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014, and aside from senior point guard Kasey Hill it was the first experience in the Big Dance for the rest of the team.
They showed plenty Thursday and shouldn’t need to rewatch that selection show clip again.
“I mean, we knew what they said, we knew what we had to do and I’m just glad we came out and executed,” senior guard Canyon Barry said. “I think this team is capable of a lot when we play our best. And obviously the first half we didn’t have a great half, but got it clicking in the second half and we’re excited to play Saturday now.”