ORLANDO | For six games, the Florida Gators didn’t resemble the basketball team that had turned in the longest winning streak since the 2014 Final Four season, in dominating fashion.
It’s funny how two days in Mouse Town can re-capture the magic.
UF routed Virginia 65-39 on Saturday in an NCAA East region game at the Amway Center for its second consecutive lopsided victory in the NCAA tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16 for the 11th time in school history.
Combined with an 80-65 first-round victory over East Tennessee, the Gators won the two tournament games by an average margin of 20 points, just a few days after CBS analyst Seth Davis led a parade of national media predictions that pegged the Gators as a sexy upset victim, first to athletic ETSU, then to Virginia, with the nation’s leading defense.
Florida turned the tables on UVA. The Cavaliers matched the lowest output in an NCAA game by a Power 5 conference team since 2000, scored the fewest points against the Gators in Florida’s tournament history and scored the fewest points in its post-season history.
“I want to tell you, Florida played a heck of a defensive game,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who watched his team shoot 29 percent, miss 14 of 15 3-point attempts and go nearly eight minutes without scoring a point in the latter part of the first half and the first part of the second half. “That quickness up front and that length protecting the rim was very challenging for us.”
Florida will play eighth-seeded Wisconsin in a regional semifinal on Friday at New York’s Madison Square Garden. With Wisconsin (27-9) dispatching the defending national champion Villanova Wildcats, the Gators seem to have a realistic path to the Final Four in Phoenix.
For now, the Gators should be justifiably proud of its two performances in Orlando, after a dismal 1-3 record entering the tournament. The last two losses came in succession, to Vanderbilt, and Florida had gone 3-3 since an injury ended the season of center John Egbunu.
Counting the Auburn game in which Egbunu was hurt, and the two subsequent games that Florida won, the Gators were on a nine-game winning streak heading into a second game against Kentucky, in Lexington.
UF won seven of those nine games by double digits and five by 22 or more points.
Florida then lost at Kentucky, 76-66, dropped the final regular-season game at Vanderbilt 73-71, and fell to the Commodores in overtime, 72-62 in the SEC tournament.
“It was very tough,” White admitted. “Going into [the tournament] we were in a tough place. We played really hard those two Vandy losses and we had chances at the end of both of them. You take a little hit, obviously, with your confident to a certain extent. We played just as hard [against Virginia]. We defended, probably, a little better, made just a couple less mistakes defensively … but we made shots. Sometimes that’s what it comes down to in this game.”
And Florida also appears to have punched the re-set button despite the fact that two of its mainstays during the regular season, guards KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry, can’t seem to find the bottom of the basket. Allen and Barry, UF’s Nos. 1 and 2 scorers, combined for only 25 points and shot five of 29 in the first two NCAA games – and two of 15 from beyond the 3-point arc.
The good news is that forward Devin Robinson averaged 19.0 points and 9.0 rebounds in Orlando, and Leon had 14 points and 10 rebounds in the Virginia game.
The two 6-foot-8 forwards have shot 20 of 35 overall and eight of 17 from beyond the 3-point arc. Point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza have played suffocating defense and center Kevarrius Hayes has missed only one shot from the floor and against East Tennessee had seven rebounds and six steals.
A wild card might be 6-foot-11 freshman center Gorjok Gak, who played 17 minutes and appeared in back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 28 and Feb. 2. Gak has made all five of his field-goal attempts in the tournament so far.
As well as Florida played in Orlando, getting Allen and Barry back into some kind of a groove might be the difference in making it to Phoenix.
“If Devin and Justin don’t step up and hit the shots they hit, this would have been a war until the end,” White said about the game against Virginia. “[And] they didn’t give a couple guys credit … and that’s Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. Those guys have done a terrific job all year utilizing their speed and quickness and toughness.”