White had every reason to be hot under the collar after the Gators played a lackadaisical final eight minutes of the half, but rather than raise his voice, he appealed to the collective reason of his team.
“Coach, obviously wasn’t happy with our performance at the end of the first half but he really doesn’t say much,” Devin Robinson said after 4-seed Florida (25-8) ended the big dance for 13-seed East Tennessee State (27-8) in a first round East Regional game at the Amway Arena. “We knew what we were doing wrong. We watched film and we could see ourselves [on film doing the wrong things and we knew if we kept on doing those things we weren’t going to be successful tonight.
“He just laid it out and said, ‘Hey, if ya’ll want to go home, just lay it down right now but if ya’ll want to advance these are the things you got to do to be successful.’ We listened to him, took that in and came out and had a big second half.”
White’s words were like electroshock to Robinson’s system. He came to Florida expecting to play in the NCAA Tournament every year. Thursday afternoon, in the 33rd game of his junior year at the University of Florida, he was playing in his first NCAA game.
He certainly didn’t want it to be his last.
“I took that as a challenge … I took that very personal,” Robinson said after leading the Gators with 24 points, 7 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 blocked shots. “I definitely don’t want to go home right now. I’m having a good time with my teammates. You look around and you see everybody happy to be in the NCAA Tournament. I even told them [teammates] at halftime, hey guys, if ya’ll really want to go home ya’ll can shut it down right now. Listen to what Coach said … I just know that we had to come out here and get a win.
“It took forever to get here. Two years … two and a half whole years. I don’t want to go home.”
He won’t have to. The win sent the Gators into the second round Saturday against 5-seed Virginia, a 76-71 winner over 12-seed UNC-Wilmington in the first game of the Thursday afternoon session.
In the second half against East Tennessee, Robinson played with a measure of desperation. He was everywhere on defense, helping out teammates, getting hands in passing lanes and making the Buccaneers work for every shot. In the final eight minutes of the first half, ETSU clawed back from the verge of being blown out to a 1-point deficit.
When the second half began, the upstarts from the Southern Conference were confident and feeling capable of springing an upset, especially after T.J. Comer found the bottom of the net with a 3-ball on East Tennessee’s first possession after 10 seconds elapsed to put the Bucs ahead 35-33.
“Came out in the second half and ran a play, T.J. banged a 3, we took the lead and I felt like we were in good shape,” East Tennessee coach Steve Forbes said.
Then came Robinson to the rescue with a little help from Kevarrius Hayes, who became Florida’s version of The Eraser in the second half. On the Buccaneers’ second possession, Hayes overplayed Hanner Mosquera-Perea and tipped the ball away. He beat everyone to the ball, looked to midcourt and saw Robinson streaking toward the basket. The pass Hayes threw to Robinson was easy and catchable.
What Robinson did next sent shock waves through the entire arena. His thunderous dunk didn’t just tie the game but made a statement that the second half was definitely going to be different.
ETSU got the lead back for the final time with 17:52 but the Gators went on a 9-0 run on three consecutive 3-pointers, one by Justin Leon that gave UF the lead for good at 38-37 and two in a row by Robinson to expand Florida’s lead to 7, 44-37.
Robinson had 10 points and 2 rebounds at the half. He scored 14 in the second half, grabbed 5 rebounds and played some serious defense.
If the Gators were a team on a mission in the second half, Robinson was the mission leader. He set the tone with his all-around game and it came on a day when East Tennessee put the clamps on UF’s two leading scorers, Kevaughn Allen and . Allen had one of his poorest games offensively of the season with only 1-11 from the field and 1-9 from the 3-point line. Barry got to the line for six free throws but he managed only 4 shots from the field, finishing with 7 points.
“I didn’t think Canyon played poorly,” White said. “The thing I like about KeVaughn is that he goes 1-11 instead of 1-4. He stayed aggressive. That’s what I ask him to do. He gets 4 assists, 0 turnovers. He defended at a high level … Cromer gets all the headlines, deservedly so. Cromer is a terrific player. Bradford may be their most valuable player and KeVaughn started on him and guarded him for a lot of the game.
“I thought both those guys were good in different areas, not necessarily scoring it but that’s kind of who we are. We’ve had eight different leading scorers [this year].”
Eight different scorers and 10 guys who played some serious second half defense. The Bucs shot 48.3% in the first half, but the Gators held them to 33.3% in the second half. It would have been worse than that but the Bucs hit a flurry of shots in the final minutes after the game had already been decided.
Hayes scored only 7 points, but he dominated the paint with 7 rebounds, 2 blocked shots and 6 steals. A big part of ETSU’s game plan was to get the ball inside to Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Tevin Glass. They managed only 18 shots between them, largely because Hayes rarely allowed them to get the ball in scoring position.
Chris Chiozza and Hayes had statement plays that pretty much ended East Tennessee’s upset dream. At the 8:54 mark of the second half, Chiozza seemed to come out of nowhere to corral a long rebound between two ETSU defenders. He streaked in for a layup that made it a 57-43 Florida lead. That play really got under Forbes’ skin and he called time out once the Bucs advanced the ball to midcourt.
Following the time out, Hayes got a hand in the passing lane, tipped the ball forward and beat everybody to the ball. A couple of dribbles, a couple of very long steps and a rim rattling dunk followed.
That made it 59-43. East Tennessee was toast.
Chiozza and @Kasey Hil combined for 28 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists while living up to their hype as the fastest backcourt in the country. The Bucs are a quick team, but their guards looked rather pedestrian compared to Chiozza and Hill when they turned on the jets.
“They’re really fast,” White said. “Sometimes they show their speed and quickness getting to the rim. Sometimes they shot it in transition offense, drawing two or three guys getting other guys a shot. Sometimes they just shot it – they make defending a high level player look easier than it should be despite being undersized because their footspeed is so quick.
“Kasey did a good job on Cromer at times. Chris Chiozza did a really good job on Cromer at times.”
Cromer scored the 19 points he normally scores in a game but 4 of those came when the game was already out of hand. Hill and Chiozza did a defensive number on him although the stat line looks pretty good.
The Gators didn’t lack for heroes or contributors, but if you ask Steve Forbes who impacted the game most, it was Robinson.
“Robinson really hurt us, and he hurt us in a lot of ways,” Forbes said. “He hurt us with his length, in transition. He made some threes. He got to the basket.”
For Robinson, it was all because the thought of bowing out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was unsettling, particularly since some of the so-called experts had this pegged as a one-and-done day for the Gators.
“This feels good,” Robinson said. “Knowing that we lost three of four games and we were picked to be the first upset of the tournament, that put a chip on our shoulder, you know. We can’t stop here. This is only one game. We still have – how many more games we got?”
At least one.