The Florida Gators basketball team moved to 7-4 on the season with a win over the James Madison Dukes on Wednesday night.
The Gators took an early 6-0 lead in the game, but after nearly six minutes without a single point on the board, the Dukes rushed back with an 8-2 run to tie the game.
James Madison even took a short-lived lead and tied it up two more times in the first half. Once again, Florida found itself in a close one with what should’ve been an inferior opponent as it took a 31-30 lead to the half.
The Gators came out of the locker room with a little more steam, led by a couple of three-pointers from KeVaughn Allen, to take a 10-point lead.
After it seemed like Florida would take over, the Dukes just wouldn’t go away. James Madison crept all the way back within two points of the lead as the Gators went on a drought lasting nearly three minutes.
The Dukes stayed in Florida’s back pocket up until the final seven minutes or so, but from there the Gators finally made a stand and got the stops they needed defensively to win 72-63.
Not only did Florida get some stops when it needed to down the stretch, but also took some fouls and made some shots to keep the game out of reach.
Slowing down the tempo in the final minutes may have been costly to the Gators in some recent games, but senior point guard Chris Chiozza decided he wouldn’t let that happen again against James Madison.
“I think from now on, we’re just gonna continue to push the tempo,” he said. “That’s when we’re at our best. Late in games, we’re not gonna try to play slow and milk the clock anymore. We’re just gonna keep trying to score and continuing to allow our playmakers to make plays.”
Chiozza not only led the Gators to a more comfortable tempo in the final minutes, he led them the entire game in nearly every area. He finished with a team-high 19 points and seven assists in the game, and was second on the team with six rebounds.
“I thought he was so sound,” said head coach Mike White. “I know this game wasn’t on the big stage, but that’s about as sound as he’s been. Seven assists, zero turnovers. He didn’t make any mistakes defensively … He led us, he was tough, made good decisions in transition, rebounded it. He was the best player on the floor.”
Allen was right behind Chiozza with 17 points and Jalen Hudson capped off the double figure scorers with 10.
While a couple guys got some offensive rhythm back, White (of course) was most proud of the defensive effort.
“I thought we sat in a stance and guarded the basketball at a level that this group hadn’t shown to this point,” White said. “It started the last couple days of practice. I feel like we defended and really worked at a high level and I thought it carried over. That’s as hard as this team has played.”
White has been begging for stronger defensive outings from his team all season, and finally got a little glimpse of what it could be capable of on Wednesday.
There were still some defensive breakdowns, but Florida had five blocks, 22 points off turnovers, held the Dukes to 38 percent from the field, and most importantly, held them to no field goals over the final 4:15 of the game.
“We could’ve beat these guys by 25 and scored 105 points and been horrific defensively,” White said. “I’ve seen that movie, and it’s not helping us against the best teams in the country. It’s not about how many we can score. It’s about being the best team we can be. We want to be really competitive in our league, and we want to hopefully get a chance to make a run in some tournament in March.”
While the Gators held James Madison to 38 percent shooting, they also shot just 38 percent and heavily relied on three-point shooting.
The answers to the recent offensive deficiencies still haven’t been answered, but White does have a theory, and it has to do with defense.
A team that puts all of its energy into offense won’t have the same energy to compete on the defensive end, and it works the same way the other way around. The Gators may have transitioned into putting all resources towards defense rather than offense over the last few weeks, and now they have to find a balance between the two.
“The buy in has increased, and I think that the workload and the attention to detail has also increased defensively,” White said. “Our offensive production, of course, I think guys are probably a little bit more tired right now. Guys are working a little bit harder in practice right now, and probably don’t feel as good about themselves when they have an open one. They’re also getting less open ones in practice against each other, and I think that carries over. There’s so many factors involved with it, but I know if we sellout to offense, this team won’t max out.”
The Gators are still working to find what their identity will be this season, but don’t have a lot of time left to do it.
Florida will take on Incarnate Word at home on Friday in its final game before conference play begins.