Florida head coach Mike White didn’t see it coming. He was more than surprised about what he witnessed heading into the locker room after his Gators hit on 12 of 16 three point shots in the first half.
“As happy as I was at half, I was a little bit angry,” White said after the game with a btit of a bewildered but happy look. “‘What was that? What was that fellas?’ We’ve had a few of those this year. We’re just streaky shooting the basketball at times.”
The Gators (20-14) ended up hitting on 16 of 32 shots in the game and holding a team in UNF (22-12) that was making 12 threes per game and led the entire country in that category to 9 of 25 on the night.
Florida senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith made 2-of-8 from beyond the arc scoring 15 points and grabbing 9 rebounds and said that his team tends to play better defense when they hit shots and they tend to shoot better when they play good defense. They feed off of each other.
“We knew they were a great shooting team,” Finney-Smith said. “They shoot the three ball 1-5. WE knew we wanted to give them contested two’s instead of threes. We knew if they got off a bunch of threes they would make them, so we just contested their shots.”
“It was one of them games we caught fire as a team. For whatever reason, we defend better when we make shots.”
White and the Florida assistants came up with a defensive plan that helped defend the three and force UNF into 21 turnovers. Doing something they haven’t done all season, White had all five of his players play a man-switch almost the entire game. This required a man defense, but when they were being screened, the players would switch to come off of the screen and be in better position to defend the three point play.
The plan helped keep UNF three made threes under their season average and shoot a lower percentage beyond the arc as well as all of those turnovers which helped lead to a huge 27 points off of turnovers.
“I guess switching 1-5 kind of threw them off a little bit,” Finney-Smith said. “We were communicating well and boxing out. It was a great half, offensively and defensively.”
Sophomore center John Egbunu played with a torn ligament in his right thumb and finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds and also agrees that the defense feeds off of the offense.
“We came out and defended at a high level and that kind of translated to the offensive side of the floor,” Egbunu said. “Some shots fell in and we just continued to play with great intensity.”
As far as the thumb, Egbunu has been a warrior for three games now and just brushed it off after the game.
“It’s coming along fine,” Egbunu said. “I am trying to do whatever I can to help my team. I am just happy to get the win tonight.”
“That was John’s last game,” White said. “What a commendable thing. He has surgery Thursday, and so that is the season for him. He did whatever he could in playing with whatever that thing was on his thumb just to suck it up and help the guys get one more victory.
“Thursday was the first day that surgery was available for him. We wanted to start the healing process. The earlier you do surgery, the earlier you can take that next step. John has a bright future and we want to get him healed and get him back as soon as possible.
White saw his three guards combine to maybe have their best game of the year as a unit. Led by Kasey Hill’s 14 points, 3 assists, 3 turnovers, and 5 steals, White hoped that Kasey would have continued to the basket a couple of times instead of trying to be unselfish and forcing a bad pass in transition.
“Kasey has been really good,” White said. “He has saved his best basketball for late in the season. He is a different player than he was two months ago. He earned more minutes and earned the start tonight. I thought Chris Chiozza (11 points, 7 assists, 2 turnovers and 4 steals) played well too, KeVaughn Allen (13 points, 2 assists) played really well. Our back court may have had their strongest game. I don’t remember a game when all three had as good a game.”
The Gators were picked to win the contest. Florida, a two seed, had a tougher schedule, beat better teams during the year and had a better overall resume than the 7th seeded Ospreys. White didn’t know what to think coming into the contest.
“I saw we were favored by a few points and I was surprised we were favored by that much to be honest,” White said. “I thought this would be a very difficult game, our mentality being a huge concern. The ability of North Florida to play, they’ve had a terrific year. Coach does a great job. It’s hard to win a league championship. Over the course of a long, grueling college basketball season, it is hard to win a league championship. That is a huge deal and is what they did. They are as good a three-point shooting team as there is in America. They were fun and scary to scout.
“I thought our guys defended at a high level and got it going with some confidence in shooting the basketball. DoDo got it going in the first half. The rest of the guys got it going.”
“I’m just proud of these guys, especially a guy like Dorian who played in the Final Four two years ago… to be told they weren’t going to the NCAA Tournament, we didn’t do well enough. None of uss played well enough and we’re going to play in this new event that you haven’t played in. I had to explain to him and these other guys that this is another prestigious event. It isn’t the ultimate goal, but the NIT is an honor to be a part of.”
And the Gators did themselves proud in their 20th win of the season.