It wasn’t always pretty, but the Florida Gators found a way to get it done on Thursday night, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a 77-62 win over St. Bonaventure.
It was difficult to find a basketball analyst that wasn’t picking the Bonnies to pull off the upset, but after hearing all the talk over the last four days, the Gators let their play do the talking for them.
“It’s always a chip on your shoulder when you’re picked to lose in the first round as a higher seed for the second year in a row,” said senior point guard Chris Chiozza. “You know, it just gives you a little bit more fuel just to go out there and prove people wrong.”
Florida showed that will to win as the game went on, but the No. 11 seed gave the Gators all they could handle in the early going.
St. Bonaventure’s best offensive player, Jaylen Adams, went to the bench quickly with three personal fouls in the first 10 minutes of play, but that didn’t give Florida the advantage it would’ve hoped for.
The Gators got out to an 11-point lead midway through the first half, only to watch it slip away as they proceeded to go on a drought of nearly eight minutes from the field.
During that span, Florida missed 12 consecutive shot attempts. Somehow, the game was still only tied at 21 with 4:09 left in the half.
St. Bonaventure briefly took a one-point lead, but three pointers from Mike Okauru and Egor Koulechov put the Gators back up 27-22 at halftime.
With its offensive struggles in the first 20 minutes of play, Florida was very lucky to have a lead.
The rest of the way, luck had nothing to do with it.
The Gators put an emphasis on the first four minutes of the second half during their halftime meeting. They had a feeling they were getting things figured out on offense, but they didn’t want to lose the edge they were playing with on defense.
The first four minutes essentially decided the game. KeVaughn Allen scored his first points as he drained a three to set the tone, and Florida went on to score the first nine points of the half.
That made it a 14-point game.
Of course, there was still plenty of time for the Bonnies to change that, but the Gators just never allowed them to creep back in as they’ve done several other times this season.
Florida maintained a double digit lead the remainder of the game and extended it to as many as 23 points.
If it wasn’t over already, once Jalen Hudson got going, St. Bonaventure didn’t stand a chance. Hudson scored just two points in the first half, but made up for it with 14 in the second half.
And to put the cherry on top, he went over what seemed like every player on the court to slam the nastiest put back dunk of the season and put Florida up 57-37 with 8:06 on the clock.
“I was kind of shocked,” Chiozza said of the play. “I couldn’t believe he made it. He got up over his own teammates, the other team. I think his head was over the rim.”
With the help of Hudson’s un-humanlike abilities, the Gators pushed on to defeat a St. Bonaventure team that fought to the very end.
After facing the Bonnies last season, Florida came in with a good idea of what to expect. The Gators knew St. Bonaventure would be a tough out and never once overlooked that fact.
“I think it was definitely to our advantage to understand how good they are individually and obviously as a team, to have experienced it firsthand,” said head coach Mike White. “I think that if this was the first time we had played them, we definitely wouldn’t have been as prepared. I have the utmost respect for the job, again, that Coach [Mark] Schmidt and St. Bonaventure have done and the program that they’ve rebuilt here as of late.”
The Bonnies got to the free throw line for 34 attempts in the game, going 25-for-34, but the Gators were able to overcome that with a strong defensive performance.
St. Bonaventure came in as one of the nation’s top three-point shooting teams, but went just 3-for-19 in the game to go with a 17-for-48 night from the field. At 35 percent, it was one of the Bonnies’ worst shooting percentages of the season.
For Florida, Egor Koulechov dropped 20 points and grabbed six rebounds, Hudson had 16 points and Keith Stone led the team with eight boards while also putting up nine points.
Chiozza came one shy of his career high as he dished 11 assists in the game with no turnovers.
“My goodness, it’s a luxury to have as a head coach,” White said. “When the ball is in his hands, good things happen. He drew fouls, as well, got guys shots, and he probably could have had 15 assists if we shot it at a really high clip.”
Okauru took a knee to the head in the final minutes, but White said he was feeling fine following the game and he expects him to be available, which is good news for the Gators. He will be monitored for concussion symptoms in the coming days.
Florida will now turn the page to a Round of 32 matchup with No. 3 seed Texas Tech. The Red Raiders escaped an upset to Stephen F. Austin in their first game of the tournament and lived to play another day.
The Gators will face a sea of red and black in what will essentially be a home game for Texas Tech in Dallas on Saturday.
“We’ve got to be prepared for a hostile environment, obviously,” Koulechov said. “We’re in Texas. We saw they have a lot of crowd here. But we’re going to do our best, treat it as every other game this year, lock in on our end, try to defend at a high level, get a good scouting report in.”