ORLANDO | Florida’s basketball team of the mid-season showed up at the most important time of the post-season.
Limping into the NCAA Tournament with two losses in a row and three of their last four, the Gators started fast, then delivered a strong answer to an East Tennessee State rally early in the second half and went on to rout the Buccaneers 80-65 Thursday in an East region game at the Amway Center.
“Great feeling,” said Florida coach Mike White. “This team’s had a rough go of it the last 10 days or so. Been through a bunch.”
The fourth-seeded Gators (25-8) will play fifth-seeded Virginia (23-10) on Saturday. The Cavaliers rallied in the second half to beat UNC-Wilmington 76-71.
Florida has split two prior meetings with Virginia, losing 62-56 in the 1992 NIT and winning 71-45 in the 2012 NCAA.
With their two leading scorers KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry combining for only seven points and one field goal at halftime, the Gators needed a lift and junior forward Devin Robinson stepped forward by matching his career high of 24 points, on 10 of 17 shooting. He added seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
Robinson tortured the Bucs both ways: he had four dunks and two 3-pointers.
“I just try to run as hard and play as hard as I can,” said the 6-foot-8 Chesterfield, Va., native. “My teammates found me when I did.”
Robinson had three of his dunks early in the game to lead UF to an 18-11 lead but the 13th-seeded Buccaneers (27-8) came back to tie it 28-28 on David Burrell’s 3-point shot.
Kasey Hill’s 3-pointer to beat the shot-clock buzzer insured Florida would lead 33-32 at halftime and the Bucs took their final lead of the game, 37-35, with 2:09 gone in the second half.
Robinson shifted gears to the outside. After Justin Leon’s 3-point shot put the Gators ahead for good. Robinson knocked down a 3-pointer, then rebounded Tevin Glass’ miss of a 3-point attempt, raced down the court, and drained another 3-pointer off a feed from Hill.
Florida went on a 16-6 run that included Allen’s only basket of the game in 11 attempts, a 3-pointer. Allen then fed Gorjok Gak for a dunk and made two foul shots to increase the Gators’ lead to 51-42 with 12:12 remaining.
Chris Chiozza connected twice from beyond the 3-point arc to help keep UF safely ahead. The lead never dipped below 10 points after that as Florida connected on 6 of 12 3-point shots in the second half after making only 1 of 10 in the first half.
UF also made 21 of 27 free throws, the most it has made and attempted since hitting 22 of 27 against South Carolina six games ago.
“That was the big separator — the 3’s and the free throws,” said East Tennessee coach Steve Forbes.
The game followed a familiar script for UF during a nine-game winning streak in the regular season. However, the Gators were 3-3 down the stretch, which included two losses to Vanderbilt and another to Kentucky.
“It’s something new,” said center Kevarrius Hayes, who had seven points, seven rebounds, six steals and two blocked shots. “We’re playing for something much greater than ourselves, playing for each other … and now is where it really counts.”
Hill had 14 points, six rebounds and five assists and Chiozza contributed 14 points, five rebounds and three assists.
“The first 10 minutes and the second 20 minutes … I though we were pretty good,” White said. “East Tennessee State got the better of us in that second quarter, if you will. But we settled in the second half. I liked the start for sure and I really liked the start of the second half.”
T.J. Cromer led the Buccaneers with 19 points, but Hill did a good defensive job on the Bucs’ leading scorer, who had scored 41 and 23 points in the final two games of the Southern Conference Tournament.
“I felt like we were in good shape,” Forbes said of his team taking its final lead right after halftime. “To their credit [the Gators] answered the bell and made some big 3’s.”
Maryland played Xavier and Florida State played Florida Gulf Coast in the night session. The winners of those games will also play on Saturday.