“If he makes one, even if he’s missed 10 in a row, when he makes one you know he’s going to make five or six in a row,” Chris Chiozza said after the Gators won their ninth straight game, knocking off South Carolina (20-8, 10-5 SEC), 81-66, at the O-Dome. “That was a huge boost for us when we saw that first one go in as quick as he pulled it.”
It was 29 seconds into the game when Allen drilled a 3-ball from the top of the key. The significance wasn’t lost on Florida coach Mike White, who endured an 0-17 night from the 3-point line when the Gators lost to South Carolina, 57-53, in Columbia a little more than a month ago.
“It was huge,” White said. “I know I felt better.”
Kevaughn Allen went on to finish the night with 26 points, hitting 3-5 of his 3-pointers and 13-14 from the foul line, one of his best games ever in a Florida uniform. But as well as he shot the ball and as well as his teammates responded on the offensive end, the key to this game was on the other end of the floor where the Gators held South Carolina to 39.3% shooting from the field and only 3-14 from the 3-point line.
Allen preferred to talk about the Florida defense than to discuss how he wore the Gamecocks out on the offensive end.
“When I hit the first shot it gave me a lot of confidence to keep shooting the whole game and to keep shooting whether I missed or hit, but I felt like our focus was on defense,” Allen said.
This was the second straight game where the Gators have either chased opponents completely off the 3-point line or forced them to take bad or contested shots. Back on Saturday, the Gators forced Mississippi State to a 2-23 night from long distance. Tuesday South Carolina managed only 3-14.
You win a lot of games when your opponents shoot only 21.7% from the 3-point line.
What the Gators are doing defensively is quite the contrast to what happened when they lost to Vanderbilt for their second loss in a week following the fiasco in Columbia. That Vandy loss was probably Florida’s worst defensive game of the year. Oh, they’ve given up more points in other games, but the Vandy loss was all about a lack of defensive intensity and communication on the floor.
That’s changed significantly in the nine games since.
“The challenge has been to guard at this level,” White said. “We’ve been a lot closer to it these past nine to that max out defensive level I think we were in the previous seven [games prior to the Vandy loss].”
Unlike the Saturday win over Mississippi State where the Gators struggled to get open shots, the Gators got just about any shot they wanted against South Carolina, particularly in the second half. The Gators limped into the halftime locker with ahead 35-33 after blowing a 12-point lead. The Gators probably should have led by double figures but they kept turning the ball over, allowing the Gamecocks to go from teetering on the verge of a blowout to a 33-30 lead with 1:07 left before halftime on a Justin McKie 3-pointer.
Maybe it was a sign of things to come in the second half, but Chiozza answered McKie with a 3-pointer of his own with 51 seconds left and the Gators followed that up with an Allen dunk for the lead off a Chiozza pass 31 seconds later.
“The biggest three of the game was the one Chiozza made to tie us after we had taken the lead,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “It kind of gave them life going into halftime. They came out in the second half in attack mode.”
In the first half, the Gators had only 3 assists and 12 turnovers that South Carolina converted into 12 points. Contrast that to the second half when the Gators turned it over only 4 times and had 10 assists. Florida protected the basketball, found the open man consistently and made the Gamecocks pay in a big way.
Florida shot 54.2% from the field overall in the second half and hit 6-9 from the 3-point line. Martin said it wasn’t that the Gators were doing anything remarkable offensively, just that his Gamecocks couldn’t find a way to defend UF’s high ball screen action that kept producing open shots.
“We couldn’t guard the ball screen and that’s what got us,” Martin said. “They came at us. They attacked us. They’re good.”
South Carolina kept things close until the 13:17 mark when a Chris Silva free throw cut Florida’s lead to 49-46 but from that point on, Florida dominated the game on both ends of the court. The Gators got the lead out to 10 points on a Justin Leon 3-pointer from the corner with 9:26 left and from there Florida just poured it on against a defensive team that locked down the Gators a month earlier.
“When they were 0-17, they missed some shots but we had something to do with that,” Martin said.
Tuesday night, the Gators didn’t miss the open shots (9-19 from the 3-point line, 25-51 overall) and unlike the game in Columbia when they struggled at the foul line (15-29), UF knocked down 22-27 free throws.
“They’re a good basketball team,” Martin said. “They haven’t won what they’ve won by mistake. Mike’s got his guys playing through his eyes right now. They’ve come together and they’re real good.”
GAME NOTES: Devin Robinson, who went 0-6 from the floor and 0-2 from the foul line against Mississippi State, rebounded with a 14-point effort in which he hit 5-9 from the field, 3-6 from the 3-point line and 1-1 from the foul line. Additionally, Robinson pulled down 6 rebounds, handed out an assist, blocked 3 shots and got a steal … Allen complemented his offensive game with 7 rebounds, which led the Gators. He also had 4 assists and a steal … Chiozza and Kasey Hill were both in double figures with 12 and 10 points respectively. Next up for the Gators is Kentucky in Lexington Saturday … With the win, the Gators clinched a double bye in the SEC Tournament. They won’t have to play until Friday’s quarter-finals. With one more win (three games left in the regular season), Florida can clinch no worse than a second place finish.