ORLANDO, Fla. _ Devin Robinson’s eyes lit up. As teammate KeVaughn Allen made a steal late in Florida’s 80-65 victory over East Tennessee State, Robinson was all by himself at the Gators’ end of the floor.
Allen saw his wide-open teammate and Robinson put a huge exclamation point on his best game as a Gator with a thunderous tomahawk slam.
The dunk capped Robinson’s 24-point performance during Thursday’s opening round of the NCAA Tournament at Amway Center and it sent the Gators on to a second-round meeting with No. 5 Virginia on Saturday.
“It felt good. My teammate found me and it just finished off the game; just ended it the right way. … Go off with a bang, as we say,” said Robinson, who also had seven rebounds and two blocks as UF shut down any notion ETSU had of pulling off the upset. “It just felt good to get that one.”
Robinson’s effort, which tied a career high for points in a game, came at the right time. UF was swooning after back-to back losses against Vanderbilt and the Gators had lost three of their past four games. Many experts were picking UF to be an upset victim prior to the tourney, but the Gators were having none of that.
“We were picked to be the first upset of the tournament, that put a chip on our shoulder,” Robinson said. “We can’t stop here. This is only one game.”
It’s unlikely UF’s leading scorer this season, Allen, will struggle as much as he did during Thursday’s win.
He averages 13.9 points per game, but against ETSU Allen couldn’t find the mark, missing 10 of 11 shots from the floor and ending the game with just seven points.
As his teammates and head coach Mike White pointed out, however, Allen’s work wasn’t solely represented by his offensive woes. His main defensive assignment was ETSU’s Desonta Bradford, who averages 10 points a game, but Allen held him to just two field goals.
“No way. I don’t think KeVaughn will ever go 1 for 11 ever again,” Robinson said. “I’m glad he stayed the course … and played defense and he didn’t make it about him. He got a couple of assists, got some steals and just played hard. I’m really proud of KeVaughn for that one.”
The Gators also got a huge lift from backup point guard Chris Chiozza, who sparked UF at just the right time in the second half. Florida was in control of things early and had jumped out to a 22-14 lead midway through the opening half.
ETSU, however, came right back and looked to have the momentum at halftime, outscoring the Gators 20-11 to pull within 33-32 at the break. The Bucs then took their first lead of the game to start the second half and things were looking iffy for the partisan orange-and-blue clad fans at Amway.
That uneasiness was short-lived. Allen got a steal and pass to Robinson for a dunk and Robinson nailed back-to-back 3-pointers as UF regained control 44-37 with 15:19 left.
Chiozza scored all of his 14 points in the second half and he was also instrumental in pushing the ball up the floor to get the Gators in an offensive rhythm for which they are best suited. The 6-foot Chiozza also had five rebounds.
“Chris was terrific,” White said. “[He was] unbelievably active, utilized his speed getting to a couple of loose balls … Chris has always been a tough kid.”
A lot was also made of the absence of center John Egbunu from the Gators lineup the past six games, but on Thursday, starter Kevarrius Hayes, who had a UF record six steals, and backup Gorjok Gak gave the Gators an inside presence they sorely needed.
“It’s kind of who we are,” White said of the Gators relying on different players at times this season. “We’ve had eight different leading scorers and it takes a special group to be successful while that happens.”
Chiozza was just relieved to be moving on.
“This is huge. This is my third year. I expected to be here every year,” Chiozza said of the NCAA Tournament. “It’s humbling when you don’t make it. … You don’t want to go out in the first round. … If we go out next round, you know we’re going to go out playing as hard as we could. That’s all you can really do.”
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