Gators surprise at start for big NIT win over Buckeyes

It wasn’t the usual way for the Florida Gators (21-14). Uncommon fast starts at the start of both halves saw Florida finish with a round two 74-66 win on the road at Ohio State (21-14) Sunday.

The Gators scored on runs of 14-2 to start both halves in the contest, something that has been quite the opposite for Florida head coach Mike White’s team, especially on the road and starting slow usually led to losses.

The win was a big one for White and his team.

“It’s a huge win for us, winning on the road at a place like this, Ohio State, against a program and athletic department that we have a lot of respect for,” White said shortly after the game. “It was a good win. I thought we defended at a high level for the most part. We continued to improved incrementally, offensively.

“We would rather have made this improvement a couple of months ago, but I’m proud that we’re still fighting and talking advantage every day of this NIT opportunity.”

With sophomore center John Egbunu out having surgery on Thursday for torn ligaments in his thumb, and with an interior shot blocking unit that Ohio State has, the Gators were thinking on relying on the perimeter to get their shots. They got some, but forwards Justin Leon (JR) and Kevarrius Hayes (FR) made big contributions both inside and out.

“Both of these guys are two of our hardest playing guys, White said of the two that joined him after the game to talk to the media. “I would like to credit Kevarrius who hasn’t been given a lot of opportunity playing behind John Egbunu. Boy did he take advantage.

Hayes scored 14 points and was perfect from the field and from the free throw line hitting 5-for-5 in the field of play and 4-for-4 from the charity stripe.

“That’s what the NIT is all about, trying to improve and certain guys maybe getting more opportunity than they did in the regular season,” White continued. “Moving forward this should help Kevarrius. I am really proud of him. I thought he played really hard.

Leon, who has struggled on the offensive side of things over the last few weeks, is always a high octane defender and someone that White always knows will give 100% effort. Coming off the bench, Leon scored 12 points including 2-for-3 from behind the arc. He also hauled in seven rebounds and all in just 17 minutes on the court.

“Justin Leon continues to be a motor for us all over the court,” White said. “He had five offensive rebounds in 17 minutes. These guys were really good for us.”

Ohio State goes 6-11, 6-7, 6-7, and 6-7 across the front and substitutes two others that are 6-10 or more.  Their starting point guard is 6-5. The size makes it difficult to work inside but the Gators were able to manage because they worked hard on defense. Ohio State shot just 39% from the field and 27.3% from behind the arc.

“They were a bunch of big guys and they had pretty big point guards,” Leon said. “So we had to stay in front of the ball. I think we did a pretty good job. That was the main game plan, because our offense was getting in a flow the last few games, so we needed to play good defense.”

“It was mostly emphasizing staying in front of the ball and make sure we talk on defense,” said Hayes. “As long as we communicate, we tend to do pretty well, which I thought we did a pretty good job of that tonight. As long as we kept that up we did really good standing in front of the ball. Sometimes we had to be careful when guarding the shooters, sometimes we relaxed there.”

The Gators were led, as usual, by senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith who added up another double-double on the day with a tally of a team high 16 points and 12 rebounds.

Florida shot 31.6% from the three-point line, which isn’t a bad number, but the Gators were 45.3% from the field because they were scoring at the basket from all five positions. Junior point guard Kasey Hill too one jump shot in the game and made the three-pointer, but his ability to flash to the rim quickly was something the Buckeyes couldn’t defend and Hill ended up with 15 points after hitting 7-for-13 from the field.

Guards Chris Chiozza (SO) and KeVaughn Allen (FR) added seven and five points respectively.

“I thought our fives did a really good job of springing the ball screen and I thought Kasey, KeVaughn, and Chris did a really good job of getting downhill, getting towards the rim and did a good job of coming to some jump stops,” White said.

The Gators finished with 14 assists on the day, five from Hill. White liked the way his offense moved the ball.

“Offensively we wanted to get a bunch of ball movement,” White said. “These guys are so sound defensively and with their ability to be interchangeable and switch one through four, we didn’t want that to make us stagnant.

“These guys two-point percentage defense is so good, their ability to block shots is so good, we didn’t want to pound that thing inside, we didn’t think we had an advantage there. Getting downhill and pitching back to the perimeter, continuing to attack closeouts, I thought we did a pretty good job of, allowing us to score 74 against a very good defense.”

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