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Florida 80, East Tennessee State 65: Gators roar to life for NCAA Tournament win

Florida started hot, cooled off, and then put the pedal to the floor. And it worked.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Florida vs East Tennessee State Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators blew an eight-point lead against the East Tennessee State Buccaneers in their first-round game in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

But that was just the first half. And after the break, the Gators were done letting the Buccaneers stay too close for comfort.

Florida responded well to a dismal end to its first half against the Bucs, turning a one-point halftime edge into a seven-point lead in short order, then nursing that lead to as many as 16 points by outscoring ETSU 47-33 in the second half.

When it was done, Florida had a 80-65 win — the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory in three years.

Devin Robinson scored 24 points — 10 on five thunderous dunks — and nabbed seven rebounds to lead the Gators, who also got 14 points each from Chris Chiozza and Kasey Hill. Hill added five assists and five rebounds, and played smothering defense for much of the day on Bucs star T.J. Cromer — who finished with 19 points, but appeared poised for a much bigger day before Hill drew him full-time — while Chiozza steadied the Gators down the stretch, as more of ETSU’s nine threes kept the game from getting entirely out of reach, and scored his points on just five shots.

Kevarrius Hayes had seven points, seven rebounds, and two blocks, but his signature stat on the day was steals. His six set a Florida record for steals in an NCAA Tournament game, and were fully half of the 12 the Gators lifted from the loose-handling Bucs.

Those performances made up for relatively quiet afternoons by KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry, who combined for 14 points on 2-of-15 shooting, doing most of their damage at the line. And Florida’s dominance on the offensive boards and in the paint on defense — ETSU made just 16 of its 38 two-pointers — helped protect that second-half advantage.

Florida had built 14-6 and 24-16 leads with a hot start, but an inability to drain threes — the Gators were 1-for-10 from deep in the first half — or capitalize on Cromer’s absence helped that lead evaporate entirely before the Gators narrowly won the final four-minute stretch before intermission.

After a three immediately out of the break gave ETSU its first — and only — lead of the game, Florida answered with an 11-2 run. And from that point onward, there was nothing narrow about Florida’s second-half edge, which never dwindled under five points again.

The victory, also Mike White’s first in an NCAA Tournament game, gets Florida safe passage to the second round, where the Gators will meet No. 5 seed Virginia in Orlando on Saturday. Tip time and TV information for that game will be released late Thursday.