The No. 9 West Virginia Mountaineers suffered their worst loss of the season Saturday, as they were defeated 88-71 by the Florida Gators at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida.
Florida improved to 14-7 on the season and was paced by senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who led all scorers with 24 points and also had five rebounds and three assists. Freshman guard KeVaughn Allen chipped in 19 points of his own.
While the Mountaineers still boast an impressive 17-4 mark, they have now dropped three of their past five games.
After the two teams got involved in a pregame dust-up on the court, Florida came flying out of the gates by scoring 21 of the game's first 29 points.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, that was in stark contrast to the Gators' start in a disappointing 60-59 loss to Vanderbilt on Tuesday:
Florida scored more pts in first 9 minutes today (21) than in entire first half vs Vanderbilt on Tuesday (19).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 30, 2016
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The fast start included a massive dunk from sophomore center John Egbunu less than eight minutes into the contest, which energized the Gators fans in attendance, per ESPN College Basketball:
Florida has the Gator fans getting wild. https://t.co/KLxzfOi01b— ESPN College BBall (@ESPNCBB) January 30, 2016
Both teams were forced to play short-handed up front Saturday, as they were both without a starting forward. Senior Jonathan Holton sat out for the Mountaineers because of a suspension, according to Raphielle Johnson of College Basketball Talk, while junior Justin Leon was out for Florida with a concussion, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com).
The absence of Holton clearly had a greater impact on West Virginia, as the Gators carried a 45-30 lead into halftime.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Gators enjoyed a ton of success against a WVU pressure defense that was among the best in the nation entering Saturday's contest:
Florida: 1.32 pts per poss in 1st half. WVU entered allowing 0.87 pts/poss (second-best in nation).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 30, 2016
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The 15-point deficit forced West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins to open things up even more in the second half, but the Mountaineers couldn't close the gap, as Florida continued to beat the trap and put up points.
The Gators finished with a winning margin of 17 points by virtue of shooting 53.1 percent from the field and an impressive 60 percent from three-point range on 20 attempts.
Former Florida point guard Taurean Green was particularly happy to see his alma mater come out on top after what he perceived to be cockiness from the Mountaineers prior to the game:
Smackin WVU! Keep the foot on the gas. Love when teams talk that crap then come out and get smacked 🐊🐊🐊🐊🐊— Taurean Green (@TaureanJGreen) January 30, 2016
The most important thing for the Gators, though, is they came away with a resume-building victory that the NCAA selection committee will undoubtedly look long and hard at when the season reaches its conclusion.
Per Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports, the win was huge for Florida in terms of proving it can hang with the nation's top teams in the post-Billy Donovan era:
Florida gets a signature win at home over West Virginia. By far the best game the Gators have played thus far under Mike White. Impressive.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 30, 2016
The Gators have now won four of their past five games, and they enter the remainder of the SEC schedule with a ton of momentum on their side.
West Virginia, on the other hand, is mired in a slump that it must break out of if it wants to compete with upcoming ranked opponents such as Iowa State, Baylor, Kansas and Oklahoma in the difficult Big 12.
The 2015-16 college basketball season has been all about parity, and Florida's win over West Virginia once again proves no top team is safe.
If the Gators can sustain the level of play they displayed Saturday throughout the SEC schedule, then they have a chance to be a major dark-horse contender come March Madness.
Following Florida's one-sided victory, head coach Mike White was extremely happy with what his up-and-coming squad brought to the table.
According to Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel, White felt as though the Gators fired on all cylinders:
Mike White on #Gators 'Tonight was one of those nights where we put it all together."— Edgar Thompson (@osgators) January 30, 2016
While it was a remarkable showing, White tried to keep his feet on the ground by making it clear that not every game will go as perfectly as Saturday's, per Allan Taylor of WV MetroNews:
Gators coach Mike White: "Obviously we’re not 17 points better than West Virginia." Says it all came together today. #WVU— Allan Taylor (@AllanTaylorWVU) January 30, 2016
On the opposite end, Huggins was disappointed with the result from West Virginia's perspective, but he stopped short of laying into his team.
According to Taylor, he felt as though his players didn't take direction well enough to come out on top:
Bob Huggins after #WVU got swamped: "Our effort was OK, but we weren’t as coachable as we normally are."— Allan Taylor (@AllanTaylorWVU) January 30, 2016
He also didn't think the Mountaineers committed enough to the uptempo, high-pressure game they play to make it successful against the Gators:
More Huggins: "We played hard (compared to) most people, but not the way we have to play." #WVU— Allan Taylor (@AllanTaylorWVU) January 30, 2016
Although Huggins clearly would have liked a better all-around showing out of his players, he also gave Florida its due credit.
Per Thompson, Huggins was extremely impressed with the way the Gators shot the ball throughout the game:
Bob Huggins on #Gators shooting: 'The way it was going in I was surprised Mike (White) didn’t hit one.'— Edgar Thompson (@osgators) January 30, 2016
Huggins and WVU will have a chance to get back on track Tuesday at No. 14 Iowa State, while Florida will look to keep rolling Wednesday against Arkansas.
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