At the 8:26 mark of the first half of their 2017 NCAA Tournament second round game on Saturday, the Florida Gators and Virginia Cavaliers were separated by just two points, after a Darius Thompson layup that halved what was a four-point Florida lead — tying the largest by either team in the game to that point — to 17-15 in favor of the Gators.
From that moment onward, basically everything was in favor of the Gators.
From there, Florida ripped off a 14-2 run to head into halftime, with a 12-0 segment into the break later extending to a 21-0 spurt that buried Tony Bennett’s team, then kept shoveling, finally settling for a 65-39 victory that looked for all the world like a flat blade to the temple.
This was brutal basketball, as predicted, but one team’s brutality was more beautiful.
Florida got 14 points each from Devin Robinson and Justin Leon, and 11 rebounds from the former and 10 from the latter, as they became the first Gators teammates to record double-doubles in an NCAA Tournament game since Al Horford and Joakim Noah did so in 2007. No other Gator would score in double figures, but every one that entered before the final two minutes of play would score, with Canyon Barry, Chris Chiozza, and Kevarrius Hayes all chipping in seven points each.
The contributions from all corners compensated for underperformance from some of the best players available to Mike White. Gorjok Gak (six points) somehow outscored KeVaughn Allen (four) in 16 fewer minutes, and Keith Stone — who did not play in the first half — matched Kasey Hill’s three points. Florida’s starting backcourt of Hill and Allen went 3-for-14 from the field, 0-for-6 from three, and 1-for-2 from the line — Hill, naturally, split his only trip to the charity stripe.
And yet those scattered struggles only meant that the Gators won by a mere 26 points, settling for tying a program record for margin of victory against a power conference team in an NCAA Tournament game — set against Virginia five years ago — rather than annihilating these Cavaliers even more thoroughly.
That’s partly because Hill, Allen, and every other player on the court in white shared a role in making the Gators’ defense look more fearsome than ever. Virginia went 16-for-54 from the field and 1-for-15 from three, and trailed 58-32 with 5:43 to play, before White’s attack dogs, who harrassed ball-handlers and challenged drive after drive, relented.
Senior star London Perrantes was a non-factor, dogged by Hill and Chiozza all night and pressured into four turnovers and a 2-for-12 performance from the field that yielded just six points. Marial Shayok, who had a career-high 23 points and carried the Cavaliers past upset-minded UNC Wilmington in the first round, mustered just seven points on 2-for-9 shooting against the Gators.
Virginia’s previous worst offensive performance on the year was a miserable 41 points in 61 possessions at North Carolina in the midst of a four-game February losing streak. On Saturday night at a “neutral” site two hours from Gainesville, Florida suffocated the Cavaliers, who mustered just 39 points over 60 possessions.
And given that the Tar Heels — a No. 1 seed widely considered a national title favorite — scored exactly as many points as the Gators did, this was a performance that begs the question when it comes to Florida’s ultimate aspirations.
The Gators’ path to the Elite Eight and beyond seems more passable than it did as Saturday dawned, if only slightly. A rugged Wisconsin team edging out defending national champion Villanova in afternoon action eliminated the top overall seed in this NCAA Tournament from Florida’s potential list of opponents — and while the Badgers are copiously talented, and their best game is good enough to beat anyone in the country, as Saturday’s topping of the Wildcats showed, their 4-6 stretch prior to NCAA Tournament play suggests their more middling efforts can get them beaten.
Beyond that, Duke and Baylor still lurk at the bottom of the loaded East Region bracket. An Elite Eight matchup with Duke at Madison Square Garden would serve as a rematch of a contest the Blue Devils won earlier this season on the same floor, and a terrifying final hurdle to clear prior to booking passage to Phoenix; a game against Baylor would pit Florida against player of the year candidate Jonathan Motley, the exact sort of versatile post scorer that could be a nightmare matchup for a defense that still misses John Egbunu, despite its continued success and improvement in other areas.
But Florida now has the best defense left in the East Region, by virtue of vanquishing the only other team with a comparable bulwark. It has a star going nova at the right moment in Robinson, whose play in Orlando was unquestionably the best of his three-year career. It has a lot of yet unused firepower, as Robinson was the only Florida player to score in double figures in both games in Orlando — and neither Allen nor Barry, who average about 14 and 12 points per game on the year, respectively, scored more than seven points in either game.
The Gators entered March Madness as the No. 9 team in the KenPom adjusted efficiency-based rankings, and have vaulted two and four spots since. Now, they’re perched at No. 3, behind just Gonzaga, a team that Florida fought tooth and nail in November, and Villanova, a team that Florida won’t see.
Florida is not the most talented team in the country. It was not, over the course of the season, the best team in the country. It is not as good now as it could have been, had Egbunu not been injured — even though it has, indeed, flourished without Egbunu, at least in contests other than ones at Kentucky and against Vanderbilt in Nashville.
Florida may, though, be the nation’s hottest team.
And the NCAA Tournament sometimes crowns teams like that.