Heading into Saturday the Florida Gators basketball team was on the proverbial bubble when it came to the NCAA Tournament. At 13-7 and struggling to find an identity the Gators played host to the No. 9 West Virginia Mountaineers.
The Mountaineers came into Gainesville with one of the nation’s top-ranked defenses led by Bob Huggins “Press Virginia” style of play. The Mountaineers gathered as a team during shoot around and started jumping up and down on the Gator logo at midcourt, something the Florida players took exception to and the two teams had to be separated even before tipoff.
Perhaps that one act changed the demeanor and tone of the game, as Florida ran away with the it, never trailing during an 88-71 win in the O-Dome.
“I think that really got us ready to play,” sophomore guard Chris Chiozza said of the pregame tiff. “We were just standing there and they was in their circle and they just kinda backed into us and I think Dorian was in that and it fired him up a lot and he got on us in the huddle before the game and he got on us before the game and said that we’re not gonna let them come in our house and punk us like that so we gotta come out and be ready for war right at the tip.”
The win, Florida’s first over a ranked opponent under first year head coach Mike White, is the signature win of the season and could be the kind of win that pushes Florida off the bubble and on to the dance floor come March.
Just four days after missing their first 12 shots from beyond the arc in a difficult venue (Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium) the Gators came out white hot, drilling 12-of-20 three pointers, led by senior Dorian Finney-Smith’s 5-of-7 shooting from three point land on his way to a game high 24 points. Freshman KeVaughn Allen poured in 19 on 4-of-8 shooting and was a perfect 9-of-9 at the charity stripe.
“There are so many areas of the game, sometimes it comes down to making shots,” White said after the game. “We’ve had games where we played with tremendous energy and been off the charts defensively and couldn’t throw it in the ocean. Tonight was one of those nights where we put it all together.”
The Gators had to go into the game on Saturday without Justin Leon, who sustained a head injury early on against Vanderbilt. That forced White’s hand when it came to the starting lineup. White chose to go small with the starting lineup, using Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen. Having a smaller lineup, filled with three ball handlers actually aided Florida’s offense against the nation’s No. 1 defense in terms of efficiency.
“We had two days a lead time heading into this game and we didn’t over complicate our press attacks,” White said. “With Justin Leon being out and starting small, having three ball handlers, it made it easier.”
On paper, a win over the No. 9 team will look great on Florida’s résumé. When the NCAA selection committee goes back and looks at just how dominant the win was it will serve as a gold star for a team that still needs to win ballgames down the stretch and will likely need to make a run in the SEC Tournament to go dancing at the end of the season.
Florida is, however, playing their best basketball of the season. They’re getting major contributions on a nightly basis from Finney-Smith, who is playing like a for real NBA prospect, and getting scoring surges from KeVaughn Allen, great point guard play from Chiozza and a physical presence down low from John Egbunu. This Florida team may be a rag tag bunch, but they’re playing their best basketball and turning it up at just the right time of the year.
“Extremely proud. We’ve come a long way as a team; not that we’ve arrived, we have a ways to go. I asked our team in the locker room after the game, are we a tougher team? Are we a tougher team than we were two months ago? I think there was a resounding yes,” White said. “If we would have played West Virginia two months ago I don’t think we would have had any shot against these guys.”