JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In one stretch during the second half Friday night, Florida seized full control of its opener and gave a glimpse of the formula it hopes to use more often this season.
The Gators rattled off 15 straight points to go from a deficit to a commanding lead, letting their aggressive defense turn into fast-break points and momentum they would never relinquish on the way to an 80-59 win over Florida Gulf Coast.
The teams met on a neutral court at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena as the Gators start their tour of the state while awaiting the finish of renovations to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center back on campus.
“It was such a unique scheduling situation for us this year. Do you normally want to open up with Florida Gulf Coast on a neutral floor? No. Very fortunate to beat such a good team,” Florida coach Mike White said. “… It’s nice to take a deep breath when we got through the first one.”
Florida Gulf Coast was an NCAA tournament team last season and returned four starters, but the Eagles were totally shut down once Florida took control of the game with that 15-0 run.
Just like that the Gators went from trailing 50-45 to leading 60-50, and the Eagles would scoring only nine points over the final 16 minutes of the game.
“I think our intensity level definitely picked up. You could see that,” White said. “I would hate to think that we weren’t playing as hard as we could those first 25 minutes of the game. I think that it’s probably more of gaining some confidence after we got our first couple defensive stops and really just settled in. And then, you know how it is with the game of basketball, all of a sudden the tides turn and you go on a little bit of a run.”
Player of the game
Junior forward Devin Robinson.
After a foot injury forced Robinson to give up on his hopes to enter the NBA Draft last year, he’s back with the Gators and looked to be playing at full strength Friday night while showcasing his versatile game.
Robinson finished with 14 points on an efficient 4-of-7 shooting along with 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, 3 steals and he hit both of his 3-point attempts. His length gave the Eagles difficulty on the defensive end during that pivotal second-half stretch.
Starting 5 and rotation
White wasn’t ready to divulge his plans for a starting lineup earlier this week and indicated he might not go with a set starting 5 much this season, so take his selections Friday for what they’re worth.
But senior Kasey Hill (30 minutes) started at point guard, sophomore KeVaughn Allen (29) started at shooting guard, Robinson (24) and senior Justin Leon (19) started at forward and redshirt-junior John Egbunu (24) started at center.
Graduate transfer guard Canyon Barry played 24 minutes off the bench, junior point guard Chris Chiozza played 21 minutes and sophomore forward/center Kevarrius Hayes played 14.
No real surprises. Allen scored only 6 points on 2-of-8 shooting, but his spot in the lineup should be safe given his upside and track record.
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) November 12, 2016
After a tight, back-and-forth game through the first 25 minutes, Florida ripped off that 15-0 run to seize control for good.
The Gators were down 50-45 when Egbunu hit a baseline hook, Barry followed several possessions later with a put-back score, a block by Robinson set up a fast-break layup for Barry, a steal by Allen set up a Robinson fast-break layup, Robinson soon added 2 free throws, Hayes converted a 3-point play from the paint and Hill capped it with a steal at midcourt and a quick dunk to give Florida a 60-50 lead.
“That was fun. I didn’t think I was going to make it,” Hill said. “I jumped really far back and it just happened to (go) in and I was happy about it.”
The Gators didn’t let it get any closer than 8 points after that before pulling away down the stretch.
It sounded like White delivered a halftime message that his team heeded.
“We just played hard. We just knew we weren’t playing as hard as we can at the beginning,” Robinson said.
Said Hill: “Coach got onto us at halftime and told us. I mean, we knew that, though. We knew they were playing harder than us, we knew they had more energy than us and I think we did a good job of staying together and holding each other accountable.”
Stat of the game
How about three?
1. After ranking 323rd nationally last season while shooting a dreadful 64.7 percent from the foul line, the Gators knocked down 20 of 26 free throws (76.9 percent) on Friday night. And that included an uncharacteristic 3-for-6 performance from Barry, who shot 84.5 percent for College of Charleston last season.
“I was waiting for that one,” White said when asked about the free throws. “Every night we’ll take it. We’ll take it. We didn’t shoot the ball very well, of course, from 3 (4 of 15 for 26.7 percent), but I was proud of the way we stepped up at the foul line. And Canyon is a guy that will shoot it better than that for sure.”
Barry unveiled his underhanded free throws, which will no doubt confuse opposing fans all season if they aren’t expecting it.
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) November 12, 2016
2. The Gators finished with a 19-7 edge in turnovers. That’s a good recipe for success.
3. And Hayes managed to rack up 9 points, 5 rebounds and 5 blocks in those 14 minutes off the bench. Now that’s efficiency.
“He was really good. And he’s honestly been like that every day this fall,” White said. “He got stronger during the summer, gained a bunch of muscle, worked really hard and he’s one of these guys when he walks in the gym you know he’s in the gym because of that infectious energy that he’s got. And it’s every day.”
What Mike White said
Highlights of White’s postgame news conference are here and a full video is below.
Florida returns to Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on Sunday to take on Mercer at 8 p.m.
The Bears went 19-15 last season and return three starters, led by junior forward Stephon Jelks (11.7 points, 8.4 rebounds per game in 2015-16).
Mercer reached the NCAA tournament in 2014 and upset Duke in the first round.