ORLANDO | When your leading scorer pulls close to a total disappearing act in the NCAA Tournament, that’s usually a formula for a crash-and-burn end to the season.

 

Luckily for the 20th-ranked Florida Gators, they’re not built to depend on any one or two players to carry them. UF can weather any negative situation, be in position to win almost every game, because its stout defense and willingness to play unselfishly makes Mike White’s team almost impossible to put away.


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It didn’t matter that KeVaughn Allen made just 1 of 11 shots Thursday against East Tennessee State. Or that Florida misfired on its first eight 3-point shots, and played with no offensive flow for the first 24 minutes.

Somehow, the No. 4-seeded Gators manage to find a way to fix themselves by not being a one-trick hoops pony. With Allen out of rhythm, UF reinforcements of Devin Robinson (career-high 24 points), Kevarrius Hayes (an NCAA Tournament school-record six steals) and the speedy backcourt of Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza delivered enough to grind out an 80-65 win over ETSU at the Amway Center.

The Gators’ first NCAA victory since 2014 was hardly a thing of beauty. They played ragged basketball for long stretches, and seemingly couldn’t make a shot other than a dunk or layup. UF made only two shots beyond the paint in the first half, one being a hurry-up, three-point rainbow by Hill as the shot clock expired.

But unlike a lot of teams at the Big Dance, the Gators (25-8) have multiple ways to beat opponents. Though UF’s halfcourt offense can be prone to dreadful scoring slumps, there’s no telling who will rise up to compensate for that deficiency. Florida is 10-1 this season when Allen is held to single-digit scoring.

“That’s kind of who we are. We’ve had what, eight different leading scorers [this season],” White said. “It takes a special group to be able to be successful while that happens.”

Allen had easily his worst shooting game of the season. Second-leading scorer Canyon Barry provided little spark off the bench, making just one basket and letting one pass for an easy layup go through his hands. The Gators trailed 37-35 early in the second half before Justin Leon’s three-pointer (his only basket) began a game-changing, 10-minute stretch when ETSU managed just one bucket.

The Buccaneers simply couldn’t deal with UF when it got into its transition game. Robinson broke free for fastbreak dunks and a pair of three-pointers. It was the first time in 20 games that he led the Gators in scoring.

Hill (14 points, five assists) and Chiozza (14 points, three assists) created so much havoc with their speed, ETSU couldn’t keep up with the Gators’ up-tempo offense when it found that high gear in the open floor. There’s no cookie-cutter formula to beating Florida, even when it’s playing average or below-average. Remember, it was still a one-possession game in the last minute against South Carolina on the road despite going 0-for-17 from beyond the arc.

“We have a lot of different players who can really get off,” said Leon. “There’s a lot of versatility on this team. At any moment in time, it can be anybody’s day. That shows we have a lot of firepower.”

A game-defining sequence occurred with four minutes remaining when ETSU missed three shots inside, then Robinson tapped the ball out toward midcourt. A hustling Chiozza beat everyone to it for a breakaway layup.

“Cheese plays with so much energy, so much hustle, so much heart,” Barry said. “He’s just so fast, it’s incredible.”

Maybe the best thing for the Gators was getting to the NCAA Tournament. After losing three of its last four games to Vanderbilt or Kentucky, it probably helped to be matched up against a tough opponent that wasn’t as familiar with UF’s multi-faceted attack.

“That’s the kind of team we are. We’re deep, got a great bench, and players that can affect the game in so many ways without scoring – defensively, rebounding,” said Chiozza. “Any game it can be somebody’s game, or any possession for someone to step up big.”

Florida will likely need everything in its arsenal Saturday to beat No. 5 seed Virginia, the nation’s stingiest defense at 55.6 points per game. But as the Gators continually demonstrate, they don’t have to be at their best to win. Somehow, they just figure out a way.

gene.frenette@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4540