Maybe it was the thought of finally playing a home game that motivated the Florida Gators Saturday afternoon in the Metro PCS Orange Bowl Classic at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. With their first home game of the season looming on Wednesday night, in the newly renovated Stephen C. O’Connell Center, the Gators put together a complete performance in nearly every phase of the game to blow out the Charlotte 49ers, 87-46.
“We’re so excited [about finally playing at home],” Florida coach Mike White said after the Gators improved to 8-3 on the season by breaking a two-game losing streak. Dating back to last season, the Gators have played 17 consecutive games away from Gainesville dating back to March 1, 2016. Now that the long road trip is over, the Gators can focus in on Arkansas-Little Rock, their Wednesday night opponent before a home crowd.
“We haven’t allowed ourselves to think about it and now we can in these next couple of hours on this bus ride home,” White said. “Gator fans, I don’t know how excited you are to see us but we’re excited to see you guys.”
Florida shot an even 50% for the game (29-58) but with only 6-28 (28.6% from the 3-point line). Additionally, the Gators hit 23-30 from the foul line. Three Gators scored in double figures led by Canyon Barry with 16 (9-10 from the foul line) Devin Robinson with 15 and Keith Stone with 10. Florida’s bench contributed 45 of Florida’s 87 points.
“Our bench was probably as good as our starters in this one,” White said.
Playing without center John Egbunu, who tweaked a hamstring in practice earlier in the week, the Gators still dominated the smaller 49ers on the inside. Sophomore Kevarrius Hayes started in Egbunu’s place and delivered 9 points, 5 rebounds and a steal in 21 minutes of action.
“His numbers would have been better if he had played more,” White said. “He was very solid, did his job and was very consistent. He was very good defensively.”
Although he didn’t block any shots, it was Hayes’ defensive presence that set the tone of the game early for the Gators who outscored Charlotte, 38-14, in the paint. The Gators outrebounded the 49ers 44-23.
But it wasn’t just Florida’s inside size that made the difference. The Gators pressured Charlotte’s guards into bad shots and bad decisions. Jon Davis, Braxton Ogbueze and Andrien White came into the game averaging a combined 45 points a game, but the three managed only 19. Davis, who was averaging 20.2 a game in Charlotte’s previous 10 games, didn’t score until there was 6:54 left in the game and finished with only 9 to go with 6 turnovers.
“I thought Kasey Hill did a really good job of expending some energy, bothering him a little bit, pressuring him and trying to get to his legs,” White said.
Davis, Ogbueze (2 points) and White (8) combined to go 4-19 from the field and just 2-9 from the 3-point line.
The Gators’ most complete half of basketball all season resulted in a 48-22 lead at the intermission. The Gators shot 53.1% from the field and held Charlotte to 6-23 shooting while outscoring the 49ers 24-4 in the paint and 12-0 on second chance opportunities. The Gators dominated the backboards, holding a 23-10 first half edge.
After a 12-3 start, Charlotte closed the gap to 12-8, but that was when Florida took complete control of the game by going on a 24-3 run. During that run, the Gators held Charlotte without a made shot from the field for nearly 10 minutes. After Andrien White hit a 3-pointer to cut the Florida lead to 12-8 with 14:26 to go in the half, the Florida defense was suffocating. The next time the 49ers made a shot was with 4:53 when Austin Ajukwa hit a 3-pointer from the corner that cut the Florida lead to 36-14.
Robinson played as well as he’s played in a half all season, hitting 4-5 from the field overall, 1-1 from the 3-poitn line and 3-4 from the foul line for 12 points to go with 5 rebounds. For the game he finished 5-6 from the field, 1-1 from the 3-point line, 4-6 from the foul line with 9 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal.
In the first 10 games, the Gators had some problems offensively to start the second half but that wasn’t the case Saturday as UF parlayed defensive intensity into points at the other end of the floor. A dunk by Kasey Hill on the fast break with 14:09 left in the game gave Florida its first 30-point lead of the game, 61-31.
“Halftime was easy because it was all about maintenance, all about maturity and where we go from here,” White said. “We look at the second half as a 20-minute opportunity to improve in some areas, to try to put 40 [minutes] together. I told our guys that we didn’t put all 40 together. We weren’t perfect in the second half. We weren’t quite as good on the defensive glass, got real sloppy with the ball late but when you compare that to some of the second halves we’ve had, it was better … we took a step in the right direction today.”
Florida’s most impressive run in the second half came after Anthony Van Hook scored on a layup to cut Florida’s lead to 63-33 with 12:17 to go. That was the last time the 49ers would score until Davis hit the second of two free throws with 6:54 left in the game to end a 14-0 Florida run.
Charlotte’s offensive numbers were dismal against Florida’s full court pressure. The 49ers hit only 27% overall from the field (14-51) and 25% from the 3-point line (4-16). Florida forced 22 Charlotte turnovers and scored 21 points off the miscues. Florida came up with 13 steals with Chiozza leading the way with five. The Gators scored 14 second chance points while Charlotte managed only two.