The Florida Gators ran away with an 81-72 defeat of the Arkansas Razorbacks on Thursday to become 1-0 in SEC play. For a couple of Gators, the game was a homecoming of sorts. KeVaughn Allen and Justin Leon got to return to their home state and play in front of their families, and a few Arkansas fans who are still bitter.
Boos were heard around the arena at the start of the game, but Allen quickly silenced them. He led the Gators with 21 points (which matched his season-high) that included five three balls. He never looked phased in the slightest by the spiteful home crowd, it only seemed to add fuel to his fire. He went off for 15 points in the first 20 minutes of play to help Florida to a nine-point halftime lead.
“He’s as steady of a kid as I’ve ever coached,” Mike White said on Allen. “He’s as even keel as any player, he’s as calm, he’s as laid back. That’s just his demeanor on the court and off the court. What you see on the court is what you get in a social setting. He’s not a guy that gets easily rattled. The only thing I noticed that was different in the entire setting were the boos at the tip. We anticipated that, actually, KeVaughn and I talked about that and obviously it wasn’t a factor.”
Devin Robinson followed behind Allen with 17 points, seven rebounds, and three blocked shots on the night. The three was not Robinson’s strength in the game, but his improved jumper along with a few nasty dunks more than made up for it. He never missed from inside the arc, shooting 6-for-11 overall.
“He’s just a much more mature, more consistent, harder worker, more serious about his craft than he was a year ago, and it’s just pretty typical, guys are better as juniors than they are sophomores,” said White. “He just made a huge jump from last year to this year. We saw it in spurts last year … late in the year he really started defending at a much higher level, but it was still sporadic, and he’s one of our better defenders now. Tonight he was all over the place, on the offensive glass, on the defensive glass, altered shots. Offensively, when you earn more minutes and you make more shots and you gain more confidence, you’re feeling better about yourself. It’s only natural that now his natural instincts, his natural talent, we’re seeing more and more of.”
Kevarrius Hayes and Kasey Hill also had double-digit nights, with 10 points apiece. Hill had six assists in the game.
John Egbunu made major contributions for the Gators. Not so much in scoring, with just five points, but with his presence being back on the court for the first time in weeks. He led the team with 11 rebounds before fouling out late in the second half.
“I thought John was huge tonight,” said White. “He’s got tremendous strength, size, quick feet, played really hard. I thought he made really good decisions with the ball in his hands a couple times. He missed a couple that could’ve gone in for him to improve his stat line, but I thought he had good tempo with the ball in his hands. He had it a couple times where he was surrounded by a couple Razorbacks, or maybe even three, and kicked it out, played with poise.”
After five ties and five lead changes in the first half, the Gators held strong to finish the game, which has been somewhat of an Achilles heel for this team in close games. It looked like it could happen again, as the Razorbacks started the second half on a 7-1 run to bring the game within three points, but three points was the closest Arkansas would ever get. The Gators led by as many as 16 late in the game.
“It was one of our best efforts, if not our best total effort of the year,” White said. “This place is very challenging to come into and to come away successful, and it being our first one, to get off to a 1-0 start having won at Bud Walton Arena, it’s a big deal. It would’ve been a big deal for anyone in this league to come in here and get one. It’s hard to steal one in here.”
With the victory, the Gators have now won three consecutive games and are off to a perfect start in conference play for the fifth year in a row. Florida has defeated Arkansas in each of the last six meetings and in 11 of the last 12 meetings.