Saturday’s game against Tennessee was a game that many thought the Florida Gators would run away with. The Volunteers posted a record just above .500 and were very undersized compared to the Gators. Looking at the 83-70 score, it would seem that an easy win is exactly what happened, but a majority of the game told a different story.
While the team might have been undersized, Tennessee’s speed and physicality proved to be a huge challenge for Florida in the first half of play. The Gators turned the ball over nine times in the first 20 minutes, leading to 15 points for Tennessee. Florida simply could not find any kind of offensive rhythm.
After a similar performance at Tennessee last season in a double-digit loss, it seemed like the Volunteers might have just had Florida’s number. Despite the deficiencies in the first half, the Gators were down just 33-32 at the half.
“With a group that’s kind of a little bit older, we thought if we just settled in and calmed down offensively, as much as anything, we could play a much better second half, and by me going in there and screaming, I’m not sure how much that would’ve done for us,” said Mike White. “It was more about calming down. I thought we were out of character offensively in the first half, just trying to do some things that we’re not used to doing.”
Whatever White said and did in the locker room at halftime, it worked. The Volunteers knocked down a couple of threes and went up by five early in the half, but after that, something just clicked offensively and defensively for the Gators. After turning the ball over nine times in the first half, Florida only had two in the second half that led to no points off turnovers for the Volunteers.
Florida and Tennessee would go back and forth for most of the second half, but when Justin Leon hit an open three that was followed by a Kasey Hill steal on the other end that led to a huge John Egbunu dunk to give the Gators a 49-45 lead, the momentum swing could be felt. The sellout crowd was as loud as it’s been all season after Egbunu got the fans on their feet with the dunk. It was Florida’s game to lose from that point on.
Last season, the Gators might not have had the maturity to close out a game like they did Saturday night after facing so much adversity in the early going. It has even been typical for Florida to break down in the second half this season, but that was not the case this time.
“We’re trying to rebuild the culture here, at least some assemblance of the unbelievable culture that’s been here for 20 years,” White said. “I just credit our guys for growing in that regard. They showed a little bit more fight and feistiness and mental resolve to not fold. There’s a few games last year, at Tennessee being one, where we didn’t respond very well to a hard fought game. We had a couple late in the year here where we just could not get it going defensively, but to defensive rebound like that, to continue to force turnovers, to force 19 turnovers and just find a way. The final score wasn’t indicative of how close the game was.”
When the Volunteers came back to tie the game once again at 56, KeVaughn Allen silenced their momentum with back-to-back three-pointers and nine consecutive points for the Gators. He finished the game with 23 points that included a 4-for-6 night from long range. Allen has been on fire for Florida, averaging 17.4 points in the last seven games, and he doesn’t seem like he will be cooling off any time soon.
“We’ve talked a lot about that, at times, having to beg him to shoot, and we haven’t had to beg him to shoot lately,” White said on Allen. “That’s nice whether they’re going in or not, and usually they do go in. It’s nice to see him really aggressive, because he’s a really talented scorer, and our guys rally around that too.”
Justin Leon and Canyon Barry also had nice nights for Florida. Barry had 15 points and four boards. Leon was 5-for-6 from the field, including 3-for-4 from three. He was also a perfect 6-for-6 from the free-throw line. He posted 19 points on the night and led the team with six rebounds. After a tough couple of weeks for Leon offensively, he was finally able to get out of the slump on Saturday.
“He’s just really, really worked on his game,” said White on Leon. “Every single day after practice, he’s getting a ton of game-speed threes up, regardless of whether he feels good or not, whether we practiced three hours or one hour. It’s who he is, a very mentally tough kid. I thought he hit some timely shots for us, and he doesn’t even think about it. It doesn’t faze him. He’s a junkyard dog for us and I think it’s pretty unique when your junkyard dog happens to be your best percentage shooter at the same time.”
Now, the Gators begin preparations for taking on Alabama on the road on Tuesday. Alabama handed Florida a loss at home last season and the Gators look to return the favor to remain unbeaten in conference play.
“It’s a great start,” said Barry. “We’ve had a super tough strength of schedule, which hopefully will help us later on down the road, but right now we’re just looking forward to next game at Alabama, so locking in on that, practicing within the scouting reports and getting ready for Alabama.”