The Florida Gators easily survived the first day of the NCAA Tournament with no drama, eliminating St. Bonaventure 77-62 in the Thursday late-night game at American Airlines Center.
Earlier in the day, on the same floor, the sixth-seeded Miami Hurricanes were bounced out of the tournament by No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago. The sixth-seeded Gators made sure to avoid the same fate, pulling away from St. Bonaventure in the second half and never looking back.
Florida advances to a Saturday second-round game against Texas Tech, which held off a pesky Stephen F. Austin team 70-60.
Here are five takeaways from the UF game as the Gators look forward to the next round:
▪ 1. The Gators have been known for their inconsistency all season, so the question coming into the NCAA Tournament was: Which Gators team would show up? The one that beat Cincinnati and Gonzaga and Kentucky twice? Or the one that lost to Ole Miss, Georgia and Loyola-Chicago? (Although, turns out that wasn’t such a bad loss after all, considering what the Ramblers did to Miami on Thursday)
The Good Gators showed up at American Airlines Center Thursday night. Guard Chris Chiozza said they got extra motivated because some experts predicted they would lose, despite being the higher seed.
“It’s always a chip on your shoulder when you’re picked to lose in the first round as a higher seed for the second year in a row,” Chiozza said. “It just gives you a little bit more fuel just to go out there and prove people wrong, but again, you try not to make too much out of it, go out there and try to treat it like any other game. You don’t want to get too excited for it because people are talking about you, but of course it gives you a little bit more — a little more spunk to your game.”
▪ 2. The Gators proved they can lock down on defense, which will be critical going forward. They had 11 steals, forced the Bonnies into 18 turnovers, and scored 25 points off those turnovers. Most importantly, they held St. Bonaventure’s senior guards Matt Mobley and Jalen Adams to a combined 21 points on 5-of-19 shooting (1-for-12 from beyond the arc).
“Those are two great guards, and we had to focus in on them along with [Courtney] Stockard,” Chiozza said. “Those are their three main guys that score. We just wanted to make it tough for them to score, not give them any open looks early. [Defense] is what got us going. We got stops early in the second half, and we got out running and got some easy baskets in transition, and we just kind of built the momentum from there, and we were able to maintain it for most of the second half.”
▪ 3. Chiozza stepped up big-time. Chiozza had no turnovers and 11 assists, more than the entire Bonnies team combined (10). That kind of guard play is especially important in March.
“We were led by Chris Chiozza, 11 assists, zero turnovers. My goodness, it’s a luxury to have as a head coach,” said Florida coach Mike White. “When the ball is in his hands, good things happen. He drew fouls, as well, got guys shots, and he probably could have had 15 assists if we shot it at a really high clip.
“In addition, he chased Mobley around for 40 minutes whenever he was in the game. It was a good overall team defensive effort, again, led by Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen. Those guys really dug in and stepped up knowing how important it was to slow those terrific guards down”
Chiozza shrugged off his impressive stats.
“Guys were knocking down shots,” he said. “We didn’t really rush anything. We found open guys. Guys did a good job of moving around the zone. When I penetrated, they would relocate, and I was able to just find them, and they had confidence.”
▪ 4. Egor Koulechov, a graduate transfer from Rice, adds an extra dimension to the team. Koulechov led the Gators with 20 points, including four three-pointers. Four years ago, as a freshman at Arizona State, his team lost a tournament opener to Texas on a buzzer-beater. He left the arena with happier memories this time.
“A lot better, a lot better,” he said, smiling. “I was hoping not to have another bad one. This is four years later. That’s what I wanted when I came (to Florida). We’re obviously not done, still hopefully a lot of basketball to be played, but this team, the coaching staff, they’ve been awesome. It’s just the whole experience, just even not from the NCAA Tournament, just the whole year, it’s been amazing.”
▪ 5. Is another Elite 8 in the cards? The Gators may have been inconsistent this season, but they have been extremely predictable in the NCAA Tournament. In fact, they have the best winning percentage of any team in the past 12 years, reaching seven Elite 8s, including five of the past seven. If they continue to play how they did Thursday night, another run is possible.