The Florida Gators came into Thursday’s Round of 64 game as the pick to be the first upset of the NCAA Tournament. With chips on their shoulders, the Gators finished the game strong to defeat the East Tennessee State Buccaneers 80-65.
It was Florida’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2014. With the win, the Gators advance to the second round to play the University of Virginia. No. 5 seed UVA just held on to defeat No. 12 seed UNC Wilmington earlier in the day.
“It feels good,” said junior forward Devin Robinson. “Knowing that we lost three or four games and we were picked to be the first upset of the Tournament, that put a chip on our shoulder, you know. We can’t stop here. This is only one game. We’ve still got a lot more basketball to be played. It feels good to get this win, but we’ve still got to get back to watching film tonight and be ready to play Saturday.”
Robinson shined in the game from start to finish. He scored eight of Florida’s first 14 points, leading the Gators to a 14-6 lead in the first five minutes. During that stretch, he was 4-for-4 with three dunks.
He and Justin Leon put the dagger in ETSU’s lone threat to come back early in the second half. The Bucs went up 37-35 with 17:53 left on the clock before the duo led Florida to a 9-0 run with three triples in two minutes. It was all Florida the rest of the way as the Gators overpowered the Bucs in the end.
Robinson finished the game with a season-high 24 points. He was 10-for-17 from the field and 2-for-5 from three to go along with five monster dunks and seven rebounds.
“We’ve challenged him all year, and he’s challenged himself to get out in transition, to really run,” Mike White said on Robinson. “When he wants to, he runs like a deer. When he’s in space, he’s got the ability to get his feet set and make jumpers, and he can really straight line drive it, of course. If he can take off before physicality and explode to the rim, he usually finishes or draws fouls. He’s a really talented guy.”
Robinson’s night was much needed on a night that Florida’s two top scorers for the season, KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry, both had an off game. The two combined for 14 points, mostly from the free-throw line. They were a combined 2-for-15 from the field.
While Allen and Barry were less than impressive in the game, White was not disappointed in their play.
“I didn’t think Canyon played poorly,” he said. “The thing I like about KeVaughn is he goes 1-for-11 instead of 1-for-4. He stayed aggressive. That’s what I ask him to do. He gets four assists, zero turnovers. He defended at a high level.”
The lone NCAA Tournament veteran Kasey Hill made a veteran contribution with 14 points and six rebounds in the game. Chris Chiozza also had 14 on a 4-for-5 day including 2-for-2 from three. The small guard played like a much bigger player, getting up for five tough boards.
Sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes stepped up for a strong game. He joined Robinson with a team-leading seven rebounds and put up seven points. Most notably, he finished with six steals for a new NCAA Tournament record for Florida.
Following the game, Hayes admitted he was very nervous to be playing in the biggest game of his life.
“I could say I was a little nervous,” said Hayes. “It’s something new. We’re playing for something much greater than ourselves, playing for each other, and now it’s like where it really counts.”
Some nerves were evident at the start of the game, but once Hayes and the rest of the team settled in, it looked like a team that had been on the big stage before.
Besides individual stats, a couple keys to the game were points off turnovers and defense in the second half.
In a matchup between two teams that take pride in getting turnovers, it was a stat line to watch from the beginning. While the Gators only held a +2 advantage in the turnover margin (17-15), they dominated with a 20-5 advantage in points off turnovers.
ETSU could not finish, with Florida’s team speed coming in handy for great transition defense throughout the game.
After a sloppy finish to the first half, Florida’s defense came out ready to play, only allowing six field goals in the first 17 minutes of the second half. The Bucs finished 11-for-33 in the half with some nice possessions in the final minutes, but the game was too far out of reach by then.
“We just knew if we played defense, it would help us on offense,” said Robinson. “We know our identity as a team and we knew we had to regroup because, at the end of the first half, we slacked on defense. So, we knew we had to come out, first four minutes, the most important minutes in the game in the second half, to make a difference. We just knew we had to come out there and intensify our defense.”
The Gators have little time to enjoy this win, with a quick turnaround on Saturday, but it was a special moment for the team to finally get a win in the tournament after a long drought and for White to get his first NCAA Tournament victory as a coach.
“It’s great for Florida,” White said. “It’s great for Florida basketball. I mean, Florida was going to get back, regardless of who’s sitting right here. It’s really neat personally … It’s great to work with. I’m proud to coach these guys, and it’s neat to have at least one more game to coach them.”