ORLANDO | One answer to Justin Leon’s offensive slump was to shed a layer of clothing.
The University of Florida’s senior forward, who had only 15 points in his previous four games, nearly matched that in less than six minutes on Saturday at the Amway Center by scoring all 14 of his points during a 21-0 Florida run as the Gators went on to crush Virginia 65-39 in an NCAA tournament East region game.
Leon scored eight points in the final three minutes of the first half, on a 3-point play, a 3-point shot and two free throws, giving fourth-seeded Florida (26-8) a 31-17 halftime lead.
He then connected on a pair of 3-pointers in the first 2:24 of the second half. The second one gave the fourth-seeded Gators a 40-17 lead over the fifth-seeded Cavaliers (23-11) and they never looked back in making their 11th Sweet 16 berth in school history and earning a regional semifinal game on Friday in New York’s Madison Square Garden against Wisconsin.
The eighth-seeded Badgers upset defending national champion and overall top seed Villanova 65-62 in Buffalo and if anyone’s looking for an omen in regards to Florida’s NCAA tournament run, that’s as good as any. The last team to win back-to-back national championships were the Gators in 2006 and 2007.
“Very happy, great win for our program,” said second-year UF coach Mike White. “Especially against such a high-level program as Virginia. Our staff has as much respect for them as any team in the country. It was a terrific win. Really proud of these guys to hold a 23-win ACC team to [29 percent shooting]. These guys are really, really guarding.”
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Florida set several defensive standards with the victory. It was the school record for the fewest points allowed in an NCAA tournament game and it was the lowest Virginia has ever scored in the tournament.
The Gators allowed the fewest points in a game since 2014 when they beat Jacksonville University 79-34.
But someone had to score and it was Leon with the biggest impact, after making only six of his last 15 shots and two of his last eighth 3-point attempts since his last double-figure game against Kentucky on Feb. 25.
Leon, who also had nine rebounds, said he had developed some sloppy habits with his shooting technique, which he gave credit to White for spotting and correcting during recent practices.
“I think was shot was just kind of off,” he said. “I think I was going back. Coach White saw me shoot in practice and told me little things that I could do to fix my form.”
But the junior college transfer also decided to change his luck and came out sans the usual t-shirt he wears under his uniform.
“On a side note, I was trying to find something different,” he added. “I was like, ‘maybe if I took off my undershirt I would probably start making more shots. so I did it, and ‘hey…’”
White said Leon never stopped playing hard or defending during his recent slump. And he also gave him credit for his defense against the Cavaliers.
“It was his best defensive effort as well,” White said.
Devin Robinson had seven points early and finished with 14, along with 11 rebounds. He had 24 points and seven rebounds in Florida’s first-round victory over East Tennessee State.
The two forwards were sorely needed as guards KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry continued to struggle, combining to make three of 14 shots.
“If Devin and Justin hadn’t stepped up, this would have been a war to the end,” White said.
Virginia misfired on 15 of its 16 3-point attempts and senior point guard and leading scorer London Perrantes was only two of 12 from the floor. Mamadi Diakite led the Cavs with nine points.
“You can see why they’re good,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said of the Gators. “The thing was was frustrating is we really accomplished a lot this year. To end that way is what really stings.”
Florida will make its second appearance at Madison Square Garden this season. The Gators lost 84-74 to Duke on Dec. 6, and may yet face the Blue Devils in the regional final, should they beat Wisconsin and the Blue Devils get past South Carolina on Sunday and either Baylor or USC in the regional semifinals.