It was a resounding win for the Gators who led 49-30 at halftime and saw its biggest lead at 51-30 about a minute into the second half. It was an offensive output combined with a great defensive effort and rebounding effort that the Gators haven’t produced all year.
That the contest took place against Florida head coach Mike White’s Alma Mater made it that much better for the Gators’ first year leader. It happened against a team that hadn’t lost at home all year and was trying to go 3-0 in their new $96 Million dollar arena dubbed The Pavilion at Ole Miss.
“It’s a little bit more special to me,” White told the Gator Radio Network shortly after the game. “I am really proud of our guys. We stepped up in a tough environment with a place that has a lot of momentum. That sounds funny, but this place has momentum right now, this being the third game in The Pavilion at Ole Miss. It was a really big win for us.
White was proud of the defensive effort with his guys really working on senior guard Stefan Moody who leads the SEC in scoring. Moody got his points, but he was only 6-15 shooting the ball and committed six turnovers on the night.
“It is a team in Ole Miss who is playing really well offensively,” White said. “They are in a really good rhythm and led by a guy that scores it as well as anyone in the country. I thought collectively we did a really good job on him. I know he had 22, but we forced him into a lower percentage than he’s used to.”
White was happy with the two guards that really put the pressure on Moody and made life difficult for him all night long.
“Chris Chiozza started the charge,” White said. “Kasey Hill did a really good job. We got some good help play side from other guys and did a good job of walling him off, especially in transition. That was the name of the game for us. We thought if we could slow him a little bit.”
“I thought Chris Chiozza was terrific, even though he didn’t shoot it very well. I thought he passed it up late when he should have let go. He has to continue to have confidence in his stroke. He’s probably our best shooter percentage wise. Nine assists and one turnover, he’s really taking care of the basketball and making good decisions.”
Florida is learning to find their shot, especially from distance. The Gators shot 49% for the game and hit a whopping 55% from three-point range. Freshman guard KeVaughn Allen bounced back from one of his worst games at Texas A&M on Tuesday to post his best outing of the year hitting six of seven shots from three-point land and scoring a career high 27 points in the win.
“Of course you have to make some shots,” White said. “For us, we’ve talked about that all year. On nights when we make shots obviously we are significantly better… like every team in college basketball. It’s been or biggest deficiency. For KeVaughn Allen to step up and go 6 for 7 from three… that’s as good as we’ve been offensively all year.”
It was the fast start that really set the tone and took the Rebels pretty much out of the game. It kept the crowd in the new facility quiet and White was excited about how his guys came out to play from the start against his former mentor Andy Kennedy who he coaches with at Ole Miss.
“I thought we really set the tone,” he said. “We knew early in the game Ole Miss was going to come out and play really, really hard. Coach Kennedy’s been a successful coach for a long time and I coached with him for five years. We knew there would be a lot of enthusiasm in this facility. But, I thought in the first five minutes, it’s as hard as we’ve come out and as focused as we’ve come out especially on the road. It was probably similar to the Michigan State game where we were on and locked into the scouting report.”
Free throws were still a concern in the game. The Gators hit on 67%, going 21 of 31 from the charity stripe. However they did get four of five free throws made from Hill whose 80% is nearly 30% higher than his percentage in all SEC games this season. The Gators lead the league in fewest turnovers, but it was an issue committing 16, five more than their season average.
“Off the top of my head I don’t have a big scouting report blunder that I can think of,” White said of his team’s performance. “The live ball turnovers killed us. We missed some front ends of one-and-ones (free throws), so our shooting percentage from the free throw line is a little bit misleading. But other than those things it was our most complete game.”
The Gators led by 19 at the half and seemed to do everything right in the first half continuously pushing for more and more. White went into the locker room and was worried that some complacency might set in. He says his team still played hard on defense, but hit a lull pushing the ball on offense. After hitting 49 points in the first half, the Gators scored just 31 in the second.
“Unfortunately when you have a team with a bunch of younger and inexperienced guys, we knew it was coming,” White said. “After we meet as a staff for 3-4 minutes we go in and watch defensive mistakes and fouls, defensive made field goals against us.”
White knew his senior leader Dorian Finney-Smith would stay consistent. The leader of the team, Finney-Smith posted another double-double, something that has become routine. Finney-Smith scored 17 points and 10 rebounds in the contest and was a big reason the Gators won the rebound battle 39-29. The Gators still trail their opponents in total rebounds in SEC contests this season.
“When I walked in we had guys smiling at each other and patting each other on the butt, I didn’t get a good vibe,” White said of half time. “We watched a little bit of it, but did more talking about mentality and approach. Dorian was right there with us and he knows. He’s an old man, fifth year senior and he’s been through it.
“I just thought we were stuck in mud for the first few minutes. We played, for the most part in the second half, almost playing not to lose, especially offensively. I thought we started playing to the clock a little bit too early in the game. Transition offense was a complete non-factor for us in the second half. But, we were still pretty good defensively. Then when it really counted in nut-cutting time, I thought we really took good care of the basketball.”
“(Dorian) really was (solid),” White said. “He’s playing as well for us as he has all year. It was a very good game for him tonight. As I go back and look at the film, this could arguably be his best game. Nine defensive rebounds, four assists. He only got five shots and he goes and gets 17 (points) and 10 (rebounds). He’s gotten better and better and he’s played himself into really good shape.”
The Gators got great interior scoring from sophomore center John Egbunu who went 5-8 on the night for 10 points, but struggled from the free throw line missing all five attempts. Junior forward Justin Leon continued his hot streak from three point land hitting on two of five shots for his six points. Egbunu added seven rebounds and Allen added six to go with his 27 points.
It was a nice night for White with the big win over his Alma Mater, but he gets more solace from his team’s effort and what it means moving forward.
“Winning at Ole Miss, for me and the staff, was big,” he said. “More importantly, to break through on the road in the SEC against a high major opponent. I am very happy with these guys that have worked really hard. It was a good win for us, but we can’t celebrate too long in the SEC.”