ORLANDO – For the second time in Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s tenure, Florida gave his team with a reputation for stopping opponents an up-close look in the NCAA tournament of a true lockdown defense.
Though Virginia led the nation with 56.1 points allowed per game, the Cavaliers were no match for a stifling UF defense that kept them in cold storage during a surprisingly easy 65-39 victory for the 20th-ranked Gators at the Amway Center.
Florida totally put a tepid Virginia offense in a vise grip for 40 minutes, forcing the Cavaliers to attempt difficult shots and took leading scorer London Perrantes completely out of his game, holding the senior forward to six points on 2-of-12 shooting.
“We just had to stay alert where [Perrantes] was at, do a lot of communicating because we know he’s bound to take over games,” said UF forward Justin Leon, who tied teammate Devin Robinson with a game-high 14 points. “We just had to stay locked in where he was at and just stick the course, stick [to] the game plan.”
UF coach Mike White acknowledged it was as close to a perfect game his Gators have ever played. He lauded guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza for using their speed and quickness to keep Perrantes off his game.
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“Yeah, that’s about as well as we’ve played defensively,” White said. “We put a lot of it together tonight. I’m really proud of the defensive effort, the focus, the lock-in.”
Virginia’s 39 points marked the lowest total of any UF opponent in 61 NCAA tournament games, eclipsing the 45 by the Bennett-coached Cavaliers in 2012 and by Pittsburgh in 2014. Ironically, the last time UVa scored fewer points was a 48-38 loss in 2013-14 to Wisconsin, the Gators’ Sweet 16 opponent Friday at Madison Square Garden.
“There’s a reason Florida is top-five in the country in defensive efficiency,” said Bennett. “To get smacked like that is tough.”
The Gators (26-8) kept Virginia scoreless for nearly eight minutes, starting with 5:10 left in the first half until a three-point play by Mamadi Diakite stopped a 21-0 Florida run. The Gators led 40-17 after a pair of Leon three-pointers with 17:37 left and were never threatened the remainder of the game.
Virginia connected on just 16 of 54 shots (29.6 percent), missing 14 of 15 attempts from three-point range.
“I want to tell you Florida played a heck of a defensive game, and we were very poor offensively,” said Bennett. “They got some length behind. London [Perrantes] and I talked about it. That quickness up front and that length behind protecting the rim was very challenging for us.”
It didn’t matter that Florida was without the services of rim protector John Egbunu, the 6-foot-11 center who was lost to a season-ending injury against Auburn five weeks ago. White’s team guarded Virginia with ferocious intensity the entire game.
Suddenly, a Gators’ squad that came into the NCAAs with little momentum after losing three of their last four games, has effectively hit the reset button. It also doesn’t have to deal with No. 1 seed Villanova, ousted 65-62 earlier in the day by Wisconsin.
When asked if seeing Villanova lose hyped the Gators up for the Virginia game, Robinson took White’s advice (“Be very careful with that.”) at the post-game news conference.
“I watched the game, but I wasn’t worrying about any other team but trying to come out here and win the game,” said Robinson. “So I mean, it doesn’t matter who we play. Just going to play our basketball, Florida basketball basically.”
The Gators will get pretty close to a Virginia clone defensively in their next game. Wisconsin is 11th in the country in points allowed at 61.8 points per game.
If Florida can put the clamps on the Badgers with anywhere near the same efficiency, White’s team will be a lot bigger Final Four threat than it appeared just a week ago.
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