Without key offensive personnel, Florida is relying on its defense to keep dancing

A late season injury to its starting center wasn't enough to stop Florida, which has relived on its defense to set up a match-up with Wisconsin.

MADISON – With a veteran lineup comprised of two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore who was a top-75 recruit in his class, Florida coach Mike White built a powerful offensive attack that averaged 75.8 points through the first 25 games and was mostly running ragged through the SEC conference.

But when the Gators lost starting center John Egbunu with five games left in the conference season, White kept his squad going by making sure the attention turned back to the defense. It’s the reason Florida is still dancing.

Headed back to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in three years, fourth-seeded Florida will face eighth-seeded Wisconsin Friday in New York City because the Gators suffocated fifth-seeded Virginia at its own game in a 65-39 whipping. 

“I think anyone that would have watched us play would recognize how hard my guys play defensively,” White said Saturday night. “They're bought into it. They're about the right stuff, whether they get two points or 12 points. They're going to continue to guard.”

Holding Virginia to 29.6 percent shooting, 1-for-15 from 3-point range, a season-worst 7:55 scoring drought and forcing 14 turnovers, the Gators (26-8) held the Cavaliers to a season-low 17 points and their lowest point total since December 2013, a 48-38 loss to Wisconsin.

Virginia senior London Perrantes scored 24 points in the opening-round win over UNC-Wilmington, but Florida guards Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill delivered a smothering defense that held the Cavs guard to 2-for-12 shooting.

“Those two guys have (done) a terrific job all year utilizing their speed and quickness and toughness,” White said of the duo. “Those guys have become tough-nosed defenders. They take pride in it now, and at times we can even alternate them on really good players that are anywhere from, heck, 5-8 to 6-3, 6-4, depending on the match-up.”

Holding 11 teams to 60 points or less, Florida ranks third in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, giving up 88.5 points per 100 possessions, only 0.4 points behind the school is just ousted. And like Wisconsin, Florida’s aggressive defense had led to a proficient offense that has helped cover for Egbunu’s absence.

Hill and Chiozza consistently broke down Virginia's "pack line" defense, creating open looks for Justin Leon (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Devin Robinson (14 points, 11 rebounds).

Florida ability to speed up the game helped them close the final 3:03 of the first half on a 12-0 run and scored the first nine points out of the locker room, including two 3-pointers from Leon. Virginia managed only five shots and committed two turnovers during a 21-0 run that left them in the Gators’ dust.

“We just had had to get them uncomfortable and play our tempo," said Robinson, who has 38 points and 18 rebounds in two N.C.A.A. tournament games. “We knew if we played at their methodical tempo, it would have been a tough game for us. We tried to stay aggressive on defense and get in transition as best as we can, and that turned to great offense.”

Having lost three of four entering the tournament, which included its second and third loss of the season to Vanderbilt, the Gators enter next weekend with sophomore Kevaughn Allen – a first-team All-SEC selection and the team-leading scorer at 13.4 points per game – having made only three baskets and scored a total of 11 points in two games.

With that defense, however, Florida continues to prove offense is secondary.

“This group, we might miss some shots,” White said. “We might mess up some execution. We might have a lack of communication or an error in following the scouting report from time to time or what have you, but this group plays really hard. They play for each other. They play the right way.”

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