Florida Gators big man Kevarrius Hayes departed the floor early in the first half of Wednesday night’s game against La Salle due to foul trouble. And from that point onward to halftime, Florida mostly scuffled against the Explorers, failing to generate a lead beyond three or four possessions and going several minutes without a make.
In the second half, Hayes played major minutes — and the Gators got going, extending their lead and making a once-competitive game a true rout.
Hayes helped key a 19-4 Florida run early in the second half, scoring seven of his 12 points during that span and solidifying the Gators’ defense, and strong performances from Jalen Hudson and Florida’s bench helped the Gators secure an 82-69 win over La Salle.
Hudson scored 15 points to lead the Gators and establish a new season high, but the efficient nights from Hayes (who made all five of his shots and snagged six rebounds), freshman wing Keyontae Johnson (12 points on seven shots, a few of them thunderous dunks), and redshirt freshman big man Isaiah Stokes (nine points on five shots) outshined what was a relatively quiet night from most of Florida’s usual suspects when it came to scoring.
Hudson, KeVaughn Allen, and Keith Stone combined for 27 points on 17 shots, with Allen getting all eight of his points at the foul line on an 0-for-3 night from the field. Freshman point guard established a new career high — in an admittedly brief career — with seven assists, but had just four points on 2-for-6 shooting.
Florida’s bench, in contrast, had 39 points, with four players — Deaundrae Ballard (six points), Chase Johnson (six points), Stokes, and Keyontae Johnson — combining for 33 of them. And of Florida’s bench players, only freshman Noah Locke — who has struggled to make shots despite a sweet stroke — and walk-on Andrew Fava failed to make at least half of their attempts on the night.
That was more than enough offense to blow past a La Salle squad that trailed by just a 40-32 margin at the half after shooting 46 percent and holding Florida without a field goal for 7:09 in the first period.
But Florida did make 11 free throws during that span, and played well enough on defense for their lead to grow from nine points to 10. And the Gators truly clamped down after Hayes returned, giving up just seven points over the first 11 minutes of the second period, ultimately forcing 19 turnovers, and holding the Explorers in check for much of the second half. (A lead that stood at 74-50 at the 5:10 mark and 79-56 with 2:38 to play only got nearly halved by a late flurry that came against a lineup consisting of Fava, fellow walk-on Mak Krause, and underclassmen.)
Florida controlling a win against a team that has mid-major talent — if not the sort that should propel La Salle anywhere beyond the bottom rungs of the Atlantic 10 — is its best performance of the season, edging a more lopsided win against a lesser Charleston Southern squad.
But the Gators’ next game is against an Oklahoma team far more similar to the talent-rich FSU squad that eviscerated it in Tallahassee.
And though the Gators’ recovery from that loss so far only seems to portend good things for their trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis over the Thanksgiving holiday, things are about to get much tougher for Florida.