Overcoming a sluggish first half, the Florida Gators pulled away from the East Tennessee State Buccaneers on Thursday, 80-65, to advance to the round of 32 in the 2017 NCAA tournament.
Florida maintained a lead throughout the first half despite a horrid shooting performance. The Gators went 12-of-28 overall and 1-of-10 from three-point range in the first 20 minutes, but they made up for it by going 8-of-13 from the free-throw line and grabbing eight offensive rebounds.
Despite the ugly offensive numbers, Florida came storming out of the gate with an emphatic message to the Buccaneers, via March Madness:
East Tennessee State used an efficient offensive attack to keep pace with Florida in the first half. Senior guard T.J. Cromer led the way, as he has all season, with 19 points, and he gave them their first lead of the game at 35-33 with a three-pointer to open the second half.
ESPN's Jeff Borzello had high praise for Cromer:
At the half, Turner Sports analyst Kenny Smith highlighted one key difference that was going to work in Florida's favor, via March Madness TV:
Piggybacking off that analysis, Borzello noted one coach had high praise for Florida's backcourt players:
Florida would eventually put all of the pieces together, going on a 9-0 run after falling behind 37-35 with just under 18 minutes remaining to open up its second-biggest lead of the game up to that point. The Gators rebounded from that poor opening to shoot 6-of-12 from three-point range in the second half.
Devin Robinson came up huge in the victory for Florida. The junior star came into the NCAA tournament having scored 27 points over the previous three games combined, but he made his presence felt by tying his career high with 24 points.
Alligator Army was particularly receptive to how Robinson was faring:
At 6'8" and 200 pounds, Robinson's combination of size and length makes him a matchup problem for teams. He doesn't take over games as often as someone with his skill set should, as evidenced by his recent performance before Thursday, but his outing against the Buccaneers served as a reminder of how dangerous he is.
Kevarrius Hayes was terrific on defense for Florida, setting an NCAA tournament single-game school record with six steals.
Florida's last win in the NCAA tournament came three years ago, when it reached the Final Four as a No. 1 seed before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut.
The Gators tested themselves during the regular season against top-flight competition like Gonzaga, Duke and Kentucky. They learned on the fly and have the talent to make a lot of noise in the tournament.
Florida will meet No. 5 seed Virginia on Saturday in the round of 32.
Despite leading by just one point at halftime, Robinson felt like Florida was in a good spot for the rest of the game.
"We got comfortable at the end of the first half. ... We just had to take it to a new level," he said, via Drew Copley of Fox 30 in Jacksonville.
Robinson also noted Florida came into this game wanting to prove something after being a popular upset candidate when the brackets were released.
"We were picked to be the first upset of the tournament," said Robinson, via Borzello. "It put a chip on our shoulder."
Gators head coach Mike White was happy just to see his team get back in the win column after losing three of their final four games coming into the tournament.
"This was great for us to get back on the right side of the win/loss column," White said, via Copley.