Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports

Justin Leon to the rescue, Gators to the Sweet 16

ORLANDO – For 17 minutes the Virginia Cavaliers had the Florida Gators right where they wanted them. Although the Cavaliers trailed, 19-17, they had the game going at the grind it out pace they prefer.

The next three minutes were the nightmare scenario Tony Bennett knew Virginia couldn’t allow to happen. When the last guy you count on killing you suddenly goes into a shooting coma and suddenly can’t miss, you’re in a heap of trouble.

That’s what happened with 3:01 left in the first half. Leon, whose first 17 minutes were beyond unremarkable, hit a little floater in the lane and got fouled. His free throw made it a 22-17 Florida lead, which, if you consider the pace the game had been played up until then seemed like a canyonesque divide.

Considering the Gators expected this game with a 23-win team from the ACC to be white knuckles to the end, they would have been quite content to go into the halftime locker with a 5-point spread, but Leon was just getting started.

He got fouled again and this time hit both free throws to make it a 7-point game. After that he buried a 3-ball on a nice pass from Kasey Hill. All of a sudden a 5-point spread was 10. The snail’s pace had transformed into a track meet. Virginia is used to walk-a-thons. The last three minutes were a dead sprint and when Kevarrius Hayes closed out with a layup and a dunk in the final minute that gave the Gators a 31-17 halftime margin, Virginia was punch drunk, holding on to the ropes, knees wobbling.

“We came out of the under-4 minute time out and we had a single digit lead, Chris Chiozza said after the Gators (26-8) had punched their ticket to Madison Square Garden for a Sweet 16 encounter with Wisconsin in the NCAA East Regional with an impressive 65-39 win over Virginia of the Atlantic Coast Conference. “Once we got going we said we’re not going out of this half not leading by double digits, so we ended the first half on a nice run and we started the second half on another nice run.”

It was Leon again providing the momentum once the second half began, hitting consecutive 3-pointers to stretch Florida out to a 40-17 lead.

Even though there was still 17:39 left in the game after Leon’s second 3-ball, this game was over.

“It kind of sucked all the energy out of them and kept them from making a comeback,” Chiozza said.

Leon, who finished the game with 14 points and 10 rebounds, said he simply did what’s expected.

“I’m known to give my teammates energy,” Leon said. “That’s kind of one of my roles. It’s really something that I’m known to do and I guess this really wasn’t nothing new, like finding something to give my teammates energy. I guess today it was just knocking down a couple of the shots, but most of the time it’s just me playing hard. Today it just happened to be me, I guess.”

Leon definitely energized the Gators who took control of the pace of the game and made the Cavaliers extremely uncomfortable. No longer could they run their run the shot clock down offense that wears down defenses by forcing them to guard the entire 30 seconds. It was one or two passes and launch, usually with the same effectiveness of a SCUD missile.

The Cavaliers shot a miserable 29.6% from the field on 16-54 shooting but that was white hot compared to their efforts from the 3-point line where they were an even more miserable 1-15. Mamadi Diakite knocked down a 3-pointer with 12:48 left in the first half that gave Virginia an 11-8 lead. The rest of the game they went 0-13.

Florida, on the other hand, caught fire from the 3-point line in the second half. After a 2-9 first half, the Gators went 6-12 in the second. It’s hard to lose when you’re hitting your 3-pointers while holding opponents to 6.7%.

If this wasn’t Florida’s finest defensive effort of the season it was certainly the most important. Even before Florida got the pace going faster, Virginia was struggling to score. The Cavaliers got to 17 points with 5:05 left in the first half, then they didn’t score again until nearly three minutes were gone in the second half.

The Gators anticipated whatever Virginia tried to do. Obviously, Florida had the Cavaliers well scouted.

“We followed the scouting report pretty well and then executed the game plan,” Canyon Barry said. “We just stayed locked in on what we can control, our effort, our attitude and our energy. We know we’re a good defensive team. We had some slipups earlier in the year but we know that when we guard at a high level we can shut down anyone in the country.”

Virginia came into the game ranked #1 nationally in defensive efficiency and part of the reason for the high ranking had everything to do with the offensive philosophy. The Cavaliers tend to play defense with their offense because they force opponents to wear down by chasing the ball and fighting through one screen after another.

Florida did a good job of cutting off the passing angles, overplaying the wings and forcing the Cavaliers to set up their offense a good 3-5 feet further out than normal. And when the Gators got the pace going faster, the Cavaliers had to abandon the norm and launch much earlier in the shot clock.

Typically, the Gators were chest to chest and hand in face when the Cavaliers fired away but there were several open shots that clanged off the iron.

“In Virginia’s defense, they missed a few open ones,” Florida coach Mike White said. “They did. We got a couple bounces our way. That’s part of it. They didn’t make us pay for a few mistakes that we made but we reduced the amount of mistakes, in my opinion, as well.”

The Gators also reduced the number of offensive mistakes. They turned the ball over only 10 times and Virginia was able to convert the miscues into five points. After struggling to get good shots in the first 17 minutes of the first half, once UF got the game moving at a faster pace, good shots were easier to find.

The Gators finished the first half on a 4-4 run from the field after going 8-23 in the first 17 minutes and then hit their first four shots from the field to start the second half. That 8-8 run gave UF all the momentum it needed. Once the lead swelled beyond 20 points, Virginia fans started heading to the exits while Florida fans began an early celebration.

Just eight days ago, there were plenty of questions about the Gators. Having lost three of their final four games prior to the NCAA Tournament, there were experts predicting a one-and-done for Florida, but instead of one-and-done, the Gators are 2-0 and stack up well against Wisconsin, which got to the Sweet 16 by scoring the biggest upset of the tournament by eliminating overall #1 seed and last year’s national champ, Villanova.

A week ago, the idea of beating Wisconsin might have seemed a monumental task. After going 2-0 in Orlando, the Badgers look like a team the Gators can handle.

A week ago, Justin Leon looked every bit the part of a juco guy trying to fit in at the highest levels of Division I. Saturday night, he looked like a guy who belonged. Two years ago, Leon was trying to get to the junior college national championship. Two years later, he’s a vital part of a team that is 1/3 of the way to an NCAA title.

“It’s amazing how far the guy’s come,” White said. “He gets the double-double and goes 3-6 from three but this was his best defensive effort as well. I can’t remember one glaring mistake he made. I can’t remember him getting straight line driven. I can’t remember him missing a blockout. He was really sound.”

And this team is sound.

And for real.

GAME NOTES: Leon and Devin Robinson scored double-doubles. Robinson had 14 points and 11 rebounds to go with Leon’s 14 and 10 … Freshman Gorjok Gak came through with another strong performance to follow up on his effort in the first game of the tournament against East Tennessee State. Gak had a career high 6 points and a couple of rebounds, plus he played intimidating defense. Four of Gak’s points came in the first half when the Gators were struggling a bit offensively. “We trust him,” Chiozza said. “We’ve seen how much progress he’s made, how hard he works and how much better he’s getting.”


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