The Florida Gators put together a strong performance on Saturday as they defeated the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles 77-56 in the Orange Bowl Classic.
It started very similarly to the Mercer game earlier in the week. Florida struggled to score early, and didn’t for over two minutes, until Noah Locke drained back-to-back three balls to make it 6-2.
After the freshman started things off, the veterans took the reins for a few minutes, which has been a rare occurrence this season. Kevarrius Hayes got a block on defense and his success translated to offense as he scored four straight points on a layup and a dunk with the assistance of Keyontae Johnson.
Then, the moment everyone around the program has been impatiently waiting for finally came. Jalen Hudson knocked down a three-pointer. It was his first in four games, and it must have been exactly what he needed, because he did it again a couple possessions later, and then again a couple possessions after that.
His nine straight points led Florida on an 11-0 run and made it 23-8 at the midway point of the first half.
That cushion didn’t last nearly as long as the Gators would have hoped. FGCU used a 14-3 run of its own to bring the game back within four points.
Point guard Andrew Nembhard was on the bench for much of that stretch after getting into some early foul trouble, and his absence showed. As soon as he came back into the game, he found KeVaughn Allen for a basket, then Allen hit a three the next time Florida got the ball.
By the end of the half, the Gators stretched the lead back to 11 as they took a 37-26 advantage to the locker room.
After breaking down some in the first half, Florida responded well to start the second half.
Hayes grabbed a steal on FGCU’s first possession and made both of his free throws after getting fouled. Then, Locke took advantage of another turnover by the Eagles by sinking a three.
While there was still plenty of time left in the game, it felt like Johnson slammed the door on any of FGCU’s hopes when he got a steal and the seas parted for a monstrous dunk with 18:11 remaining. That put Florida up 44-26, and it never looked back from there.
“I thought the key to the game was the first three or four minutes defensively of the second half,” said head coach Mike White. “I thought our guys came out of the locker room, after receiving the same message that they get every game just about, and watching the same film we watch every game, but for whatever reason they came out and the air conditioning must’ve been blowing the right way, because our guys were in a stance and playing with a lot of intensity.”
A couple more three-pointers from Locke and Hudson gave the Gators a 26-point lead five minutes later. It stretched that even further to 29 later in the half.
The Eagles brought it back within 21 by the end, but that was mostly due to some fatigue and late substitutions.
Either way, Florida came out on top and can enjoy this short break for Christmas feeling a bit more confident than it has been recently.
The one guy whose confidence is likely through the roof is Hudson. He’s dealt with the toughest stretch of his career in this first part of the season, and oftentimes it felt like he may never get back to being the offensive weapon he’s always been.
His 14 points (5-for-11 from the field, 4-for-9 from three) in 23 minutes earned him the MVP title for the game. He also had six rebounds, and White said afterward that Hudson’s defensive performance was what he was most proud of.
“It’s just like life,” Hudson said of breaking the slump. “There’s ups and downs. You’ve just gotta keep fighting. I feel like I was in an uphill battle for a little bit. You’ve just gotta keep fighting. It’s the name of the game. I hope this starts something good. We’ll see. I’ve just gotta stay in the gym and stay confident. I feel good.”
While Hudson finally came to life, Locke remained as good as ever as he led Florida with 15 points and made five three-pointers for the second game in a row. All of his points came from beyond the arc as he made 5 of his 9 shots.
Again, White loves the offensive production, but is a bigger fan of his defensive effort.
“He’s really shooting the ball well,” White said. “Taking good shots is probably the key for him. And shooting it with a clean conscience because he’s playing at such a high intensity level defensively, and it carries over. Sometimes you get rewarded with some made shots when you’re playing the right way.”
Kevarrius Hayes also finished in double figures with 12 points as he made all five of his shots and free throw attempts. He was just as good on the boards with seven rebounds (4 defensive, 3 offensive), and he blocked three shots as well.
Deaundrae Ballard quietly scored 11 points in his first game back from a concussion suffered during the 10-day break.
Another key stat in the game was 22 turnovers by the Eagles, leading to 34 Florida points.
While FGCU wasn’t a great team and the Gators still had some breakdowns in the game, there is plenty to build off of this win. Florida will need to carry the momentum into next Saturday’s game against Butler and into SEC play the next week.