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It has been two weeks since the four-seed Florida Gators (25-8) played as well as they did in the second half on Thursday, which is why so many doubted whether Florida could overcome a tough 13 seed in the East Tennessee Buccaneers during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
But that’s exactly what the Gators did in front of a partisan crowd in Orlando, Florida, pulling away early in the second half and taking down the Bucs 80-65 to win their first NCAA Tournament game since 2014.
The doubters came fast and the takes were
hot mild, beginning moments after the UF-ETSU matchup was announced during the Selection Show last Sunday on CBS. Analyst Seth Davis could not declare fast enough that Florida was his first upset pick in the tournament.
That line of thinking continued throughout the week with the Gators’ opponent serving as a trendy underdog ticket to punch in brackets across the country. That certainly permeated the mind of Bucs head coach Steve Forbes, whose pregame speech to his team was largely based on his belief that this Florida team was far from “great.”
“I know the difference between ‘good’ and ‘great,'” he screamed. “I’ve seen ‘great’ Florida, and I’ve seen ‘good’ Florida. Understand this: [Al] Horford, [Joakim] Noah and [Corey] Brewer, they ain’t coming out of that tunnel today. They ain’t coming out of that tunnel today. They’re coming out of the tunnel with guys just like you — just like you.”
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 16, 2017
Forbes was right in one regard: Florida and ETSU matched up quite well in terms of personnel, and the teams were head-to-head entering the locker room at half. But it’s hard to say the Bucs are just like the Gators when the favorites do what top teams are supposed to — take over when it counts. Florida erupted on a 24-6 scoring stretch early in the second half to take a game-high 16-point lead and never saw its advantage dip below double digits.
ETSU may not have thought it was playing the Oh Fours, but it had no answer for Gators junior forward Devin Robinson, who had a Brewer-like performance by dunking all over the Bucs while matching a career-high with 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting, hitting 2-of-5 threes, netting both his free throws and adding seven boards with two blocks.
It also could not contain junior point guard Chris Chiozza, who summoned a bit of Taurean Green with 14 points, five rebounds and three assists while making both his threes, 4-of-5 free throws and 2-of-3 shots from inside the arc.
“It feels good [to silence the critics],” Robinson said. “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 still have … a lot more basketball to be played.”
In winning his first career NCAA Tournament game, head coach Mike White obviously kept the team focused but atmosphere light and loose despite all the talk surrounding the game. The Gators were actually laughing walking onto the court on Thursday as White caught his players by surprise by referencing the Migos track “Pipe It Up” in the pre-game huddle.
— Brian Schaible (@SBNationReports) March 16, 2017
White said the first 10 minutes and entire second half were “pretty good,” blaming some stagnant and ineffective play for Florida’s eight-point advantage shrinking to one at the half and becoming a two-point deficit just moments after departing the locker rooms.
Robinson was by far the most consistent player on the court Thursday, and he was able to get in a groove quickly with a steal and dunk right after the game started. That happened for the Gators quite often against the Bucs, particularly in the second half as the favorites built their substantial lead.
“We had to rev it up a little bit. We got comfortable at the end of the first half, as coach said, and we just knew we had to take it to a new level. We just tried to be more aggressive and get to every loose ball and just play our best basketball on defense,” explained Robinson. “It translated into the offense. That’s what we tried to emphasize when we got into the locker room [at halftime].”
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 16, 2017
It wasn’t a one-man show on Thursday, though, as sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes set a program NCAA Tournament record with six steals, adding seven points, seven boards and two blocks. Chiozza also proved once again to be a necessary bench contributor whose effort Florida must have in every game.
“Unbelievably active, utilized his speed getting to a couple of loose balls, which led to layups for himself. And he just rebounds bigger than he is,” said White of Chiozza. “Chris has always been a tough kid, and in my opinion, in the last few months, he’s really grown into becoming a really tough kid. For whatever reason, he’s embraced that. And defensively and on the glass, again, this is a guy that six, eight weeks ago gets a triple-double. I’m glad he’s a Gator.”
Though UF’s two top scorers had rough outings against ETSU, White did not see it that way. Graduate transfer guard Canyon Barry posted just five points on 1-of-5 shooting, but White pointed out his ability to get to the charity stripe late and insisted he did not play poorly. Of sophomore G KeVaughn Allen, who went 1-for-11 from the floor, White said he preferred a line like that to a 1-of-4 mark. “He stayed aggressive. That’s what I ask him to do,” the coach said. “He gets four assists, zero turnovers. He defended at a high level.”
He continued: “Both those guys were good in different areas, not necessarily scoring it. But that’s kind of who we are. We’ve had eight different leading scorers. And it takes a special group to be able to be successful while that happens. KeVaughn’s not hanging his head right now. KeVaughn is happy that we won.”
What matters more than the individual efforts on Thursday in Orlando is the fact that the Gators are not just back in the NCAA Tournament but winning in the Big Dance, doing so in a first-round game for their fifth straight appearance. That fact was certainly not lost on White, who had never previously been to the event as a coach at any level.
“It’s great for Florida. 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,” he said. “My staff’s all fired up. Hey, we got to the tournament. We won a game. We’re ready to move on to the next one. I’m way more pleased for our guys, especially our seniors, last go-round.”
Go Gators!!! One game at a time.
— Al Horford (@Al_Horford) March 16, 2017
— Joakim Noah (@JoakimNoah) March 16, 2017
Let’s get it 🐊boys
— Taurean Green (@TaureanJGreen) March 16, 2017