Kan Li / Scout

Gators open SEC schedule with win over Georgia

There was no New Year’s hangover for Florida’s basketball team. The Gators (9-4, 1-0 SEC) shook off a heartbreaking loss to Florida State last Tuesday by opening the Southeastern Conference portion of their schedule Saturday night with a 77-63 win over Georgia (7-4, 0-1 SEC) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

The Gators did it with a combination of great perimeter defense, rebounding and one of their better shooting nights of the season from the 3-point line. Georgia came into the game averaging six 3-pointers a game, but the Bulldogs were only 2-12 against the Gators.

“It shows you how capable we are defensively,” Florida coach Mike White said. “This (Georgia) is a good offensive team. Mark Fox is a heck of an offensive coach.”

Led by John Egbunu (12 rebounds) the Gators outrebounded the Bulldogs, 43-36. Egbunu finished the game with 12 points, hitting 5-8 from the field and 2-3 from the foul line to go with 2 blocked shots.

“I thought he made some big plays to end up with 12 and 12 for us,” White said.

Florida’s shooting from the 3-point line was a pleasant surprise. Coming into the game the Gators were hitting only 27.4% from long distance and coming off a dismal 4-25 effort against FSU. Florida hit a respectable 9-22 (40.9%) including a couple of daggers in the final minutes of the game – a 3-ball from Dorian Finney-Smith with 2:08 remaining that stretched Florida’s lead to 14 points (69-55) and a shot clock beating 3 by KeVaughn Allen with 1:08 that pretty much sealed the game.

Overall, the Gators shot 42.3% from the field (22-52) while holding Georgia to 35.6% on 21-59 shooting. Georgia hit only 2 of its last 20 shots.

The defensive strategy centered around taking out Georgia’s leading scorer J.J. Frazier (15.4 per game). Using a combination of quickness and size, Frazier was pretty much a non-factor. Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill applied the quickness for the Gators while 6-8 Dorian Finney-Smith and 6-6 Devon Walker took occasional turns on the 5-10 point guard. Frazier managed double figures thanks to a late 3-ball and 3 free throws after a foul, but his 12 points were very, very quiet.

Florida’s 14-point margin of victory would have been much larger had the Gators hit their free throws. The Gators got to the foul line early and often but managed only 24-41 for the game after starting out 10-14.

Georgia’s strategy early on was to pack the defense in the paint and give the Gators the open shot from beyond the arc but that backfired early when Justin Leon, Chris Chiozza and Allen each hit 3-balls in the first 10 minutes.

Egbunu scored five straight points midway through the first half to give the Gators a 7-point cushion (18-11) and that’s when Devin Robinson took over. Motivated perhaps by losing his spot in the starting rotation for poor play against Florida State earlier in the week, Robinson came off the bench on fire to ignite the Gators starting with a 3-point play at the 9:36 mark and followed that up with the first of two 3-pointers to put the Gators ahead, 24-11. Robinson hit another 3-pointer with 4:37 to go and added four more free throws for a 13-point half that included 4 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 blocked shot. Robinson bruised his chest in the first half and didn’t play again.

Behind Robinson and Egbunu the Gators forged ahead, 37-22 with 4:03 to go in the half, but the Florida offense went into the deep freeze the rest of the way. Georgia finished the half on a 9-1 run as the Gators went scoreless from the field and hit only 1-4 from the foul line in the final four minutes of the half.

Even with the slowdown at the end, it was one of Florida’s more impressive first half offensive showings of the season. The Gators hit 11-25 from the field overall and 6-13 from the 3-point line. Contrast that with a 4-18 effort from the 3-point line in the loss against FSU.

The cold shooting continued for the Gators the first seven minutes of the second half as Georgia closed to within four points (43-39) at the 16:58 mark and within six (50-44) the 13:15 mark, but Kasey Hill hit four straight free throws and that seemed to get the Gators going again.

It was 59-49 when Chiozza hit another 3-pointer with 7:18 left in the game and Hill followed that up with a runner in the lane. Although the Gators missed several free throws and sent Georgia to the line far too often (finished 19-27 from the line), the 3-pointers by Finney-Smith and Allen kept the Bulldogs from getting close enough to make the Gators sweat.

Florida finished the game with five players in double figures led by Allen with 18. Robinson (13), Egbunu (12), Chiozza (11) and Hill (10) made for a balanced Florida attack.

The Gators travel to Knoxville Wednesday night to face Tennessee (7-6, 0-1 SEC), which lost its SEC opener to Auburn Saturday afternoon, 83-77.


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