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Florida 97, North Florida 68: Gators rain threes, cruise to win in NIT opener

Things get a little harder from here.

Joshua Lindsey-USA TODAY Sports

It would have been unsurprising had Florida fallen to North Florida and a hail of threes on Tuesday in the teams' NIT opener in Jacksonville, given the Gators' spotty perimeter defense and the Ospreys' dead-eyed shooting.

What actually happened was a shock in its own right: Florida made 16 of 32 threes, led by 32 at halftime, and cruised to a 97-68 win over UNF.

Five Gators made at least two triples in the bombardment, and all five Florida starters and reserve Chris Chiozza — shunted to the bench after a pair of woeful performances in the SEC Tournament — scored in double figures. Chiozza made all three of his threes, and KeVaughn Allen made four of seven, while Dorian Finney-Smith led the Gators in scoring with 15 points.

As for the so-called "Birds of Trey"? They couldn't match Florida's shooting from beyond the arc, making just nine of 25 threes for a 36 percent mark, and struggled to get anything going in the first half, only recovering to shave the Gators' deficit into the teens briefly in the second period. By that point, about the only part of the game in doubt was the margin of victory.

Florida will move on to an NIT second round game against Ohio State, an overtime winner against Akron on Tuesday. That game will tip off Sunday at noon Eastern, and will be Florida's first trip to Columbus since 2011, when the Gators lost their second game of the season, 81-74, to a Buckeyes outfit that would make the Final Four.

The Gators won't have injured center John Egbunu for that game or any more in the 2015-16 season, either. Egbunu will have surgery Thursday to repair the torn ligament in his right thumb that has limited him over Florida's last three outings, Florida coach Mike White announced after the game.

But even a limited Egbunu — who had 13 points and 10 rebounds against the undersized Ospreys — is a far better option than any other center for Florida, given the rawness of Kevarrius Hayes and the sparing usage of Schuyler Rimmer.

This win was a feel-good moment for the Gators and White, who becomes just the second Florida men's basketball coach to pilot the Gators to 20 or more wins in his inaugural season. The rest of the NIT presents much higher hurdles to more such moments.