The Florida Gators looked like a team having fun for a change Wednesday night. Instead of the uptight Gators that struggled in a loss to Auburn last Friday night in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, they played loose, relaxed basketball on both ends of the floor, taking an 84-62 win over Jacksonville University in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
The Gators (24-10) move on to the second round where they will face Miami (19-12), a 78-66 winner over Providence Wednesday night. Florida will face Miami Friday (7 p.m.) at the O-Dome.
Jacksonville, which won the regular season championship of the Atlantic Sun Conference, finished its season 18-16.
Five Gators scored in double figures led by Nick Calathes, who finished with 19 points, six rebounds and six assists, his best game since scoring 20 against Tennessee on March 1. Calathes scored only 23 points in the previous three games, netting only seven in the loss to Auburn in the SEC Tournament. Calathes hit 8-10 from the field and was 2-3 from the three-point line.
“I’m always going to put pressure on myself because I want the team to play well and I want to help the team,” said Calathes. “I think I was in a shooting slump and maybe I was trying a little too hard. I just tried to concentrate on running the team and taking my shots when I had one that was open tonight. It felt really good to get going again.”
The Gators also got 17 points and 14 rebounds from Chandler Parsons, whose previous four games totaled a combined nine points and 15 rebounds. Parsons hit 6-9 from the field including 2-3 on three-pointers and he was 3-3 from the foul line.
Parsons had been starting but Coach Billy Donovan changed the lineup Wednesday night, starting freshman Erving Walker and bringing Parsons off the bench. As soon as Parsons got in the game, he was aggressive on the boards and on defense. He had three rebounds and a deflection before he ever took a shot, and when he finally launched a three, he found the bottom of the net.
“I was pretty relaxed when I got in the game,” Parsons said. “I just wanted to come in and contribute wherever I could. Maybe by thinking about getting the job done in other places that took some of the pressure off me offensively. My shot felt good tonight and I really hope I can keep that up.”
Calathes said that Parsons gave the Gators an instant shot of energy when he got into the game.
“When he [Parsons] is attacking the hoop he’s a much different player,” Calathes said. “When he’s attacking and rebounding like that, it changes our whole team and we’re better. Tonight he was loose and having fun, and it really showed in the way he played.”
Also in double figures for the Gators were Alex Tyus (13), Walker (11) and Dan Werner (10). Tyus also had three rebounds and a blocked shot, while Walker contributed four assists and two steals. In addition to his points, Werner had three rebounds, five assists and two teals.
The Gators hit 32-57 (56.1 percent) from the field and 9-19 on three-pointers (47.4 percent).
If one play summed up Florida’s domination it was a bang-bang fast break when the ball never hit the floor — a steal by Calathes, a pass ahead to Walter Hodge and an in-stride pass to Ray Shipman at the other end to make it 66-40. It’s not like the Gators needed the points, just that the play was the kind that teams make when they’re having fun.
“We were pretty loose,” said senior guard Walter Hodge, whose main contributions were passing the ball (three assists) and playing defense. Hodge gave the Gators two steals and did his part in helping to shut down Jacksonville’s leading scorer, Ben Smith, who came into the game averaging 17.2 per game. Smith went 2-13 from the field (1-7 on threes) and finished with seven points.
Florida never trailed, jumping to a 10-2 lead behind an opening salvo of seven points by Alex Tyus. Parsons put together one of his best halves of basketball by scoring 13 points and grabbing seven first half rebounds. He got the Gators going on a 13-4 run that extended Florida’s lead to 13-10 with a long three from the left wing with 14:24 left in the half. He also converted an old-fashioned three-point play with a fast break finish and foul shot with 11:45 remaining.
Jacksonville got back within seven points (30-23) with 6:46 left in the half, but Werner scored five of Florida’s next nine points to put the Gators back in command at 39-23.
The Gators enjoyed one of their best shooting halves of the season, hitting 19 of their 30 shots from the field including 6-9 from the three-point line. How hot were they? Parsons, who was 1-7 on three-balls in his last four games, hit both his threes in the first half and scored more first half points than he did in the previous four games combined.
Jacksonville couldn’t compete with the Gators in the paint. Florida enjoyed a 20-10 first half rebounding advantage and the Gators outscored the Dolphins 26-10 on the inside. For the game, the Gators outscored JU 46-22 in the paint plus the Gators got 23 points off Dolphins’ turnovers.
GAME NOTES: Eloy Vargas played in both halves and logged 11 minutes, his longest playing time of the season … Kenny Kadji played only limited minutes because of the flu and some soreness in his knee. He scored two points in five minutes … Shipman had seven points while logging 22 minutes off the bench … Walkon Kyle McClanahan got in the game in both halves, logged seven minutes and scored two points … Walkon sophomore Hudson Fricke played for the first time since breaking both wrists back in October … Florida held Jacksonville to 36.8 percent from the field and only 6-23 (26.1 percent) from the three-point line.