The Florida Gators improved their record to 2-1 with a victory over the La Salle Explorers at home Wednesday night.
The Gators were leading just 9-7 at the first media timeout, with Kevarrius Hayes and Jalen Hudson being the lone scorers. While Florida didn’t come out strong right out of the gate, Hayes’ five points in the first five minutes foreshadowed what was to come.
As the half went on, Florida extended its lead to as many as 12, but it was no thanks to a great night shooting it.
The Gators did not make a single field goal for more than seven minutes late in the half. They benefitted from some La Salle fouls and free throw shooting, led by six made free throws in three trips to the line from KeVaughn Allen.
At the end of the first 20 minutes, Florida led 40-32.
The difference in the game came at the start of the second half. For the second game in a row, the Gators came out of the locker room with a renewed energy.
Florida’s 19-3 run over the first 8:50 of the half started with Hayes returning to the court after some early foul trouble. He continued one of the best games of his career by settling the defense and providing a scoring presence inside that the Gators have desperately missed.
Meanwhile, freshmen Keyontae Johnson and Andrew Nembhard did not look like freshmen at all on the court.
Johnson scored all 10 of his points in the second half, and showed off his insane athleticism with some flashy dunks. He used every bit of his 41-inch vertical multiple times on Wednesday.
None were more impressive than when Nembhard grabbed one of his three steals on the night and found Johnson on the fast break for a slam.
The Gators let things slip with time winding down as Mike White was able to clear his bench and get every available player in the game. Florida still pulled out the 82-69 win despite some late defensive breakdowns.
Jalen Hudson quietly led the team with 15 points (6-for-12, 2-for-5 from three), while fellow senior Allen finished with 8 points, all from the free throw line.
Hayes led the charge for the veterans with 12 points and 6 rebounds. He made all five of his shots to continue a perfect shooting season from the floor (he’s 9-for-9).
Johnson said he and the rest of the team really fed off Hayes’ energy and leadership throughout the game. It may not mean much against La Salle, but it will be big for Florida if the inside game can continue to develop this season.
“He cares about winning as much as anyone on our team,” White said. “He’s as prepared and as competitive in practice as anyone on our team every day. We know what we’re getting from Kevarrius every day from an effort standpoint. He works his butt off, so for him to have a good game individually, it’s nice to see. It’s nice to see and hopefully it’s a good example to his teammates as well.”
Nembhard continued his early success as Florida’s starting point guard with 7 assists to just a single turnover.
“He’s really passing it well and he’s playing under control, he’s leading, he’s directing traffic, playing with poise,” White said. “And tonight, he played with an injury. He’s got a strained hip flexor. He didn’t practice a lot yesterday. He was half-speed in shoot around this morning. So, he showed a lot of toughness today playing through that.”
The Gators have yet to find an identity from a shooting standpoint, as they were 23.1 percent from deep (3-for-13) in the game. At the same time, it wasn’t necessarily needed this time out as Florida finished with a 46-32 advantage in the paint.
Shooting continues to be a concern from the outside looking in, but White said he has confidence in his guys and believes they will start falling.
That needs to happen for the Gators to have success in some big-time games in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament next week.