After the Gators went down by two points early in the second half, Devin Robinson took a pass from KeVaughn Allen just outside the arc and swished it with ease.
Quick on his feet, the junior ran the length of the court, corralled a defensive rebound and made another quick three-point basket to light up the Florida-heavy crowd in Orlando’s Amway Center.
Robinson scored a career-high-tying 24 points — capped with a monstrous dunk at the end of regulation — and served as No. 4 seed Florida’s offensive catalyst early in its 80-65 victory over No. 13 seed East Tennessee State in Florida’s first NCAA Tournament game since making a run to the Final Four in 2014. It was also UF coach Mike White’s first career NCAA Tournament victory as a head coach.
With the win, Florida will face No. 5 seed Virginia in the second round on Saturday. The Cavaliers defeated 12th-seeded UNC-Wilmington 76-71 earlier in the day.
Robinson was a critical factor in Florida’s success on Thursday. The 6-8 forward scored eight of the Gators’ first 14 points and made 10 of his 17 shots from the field overall in his first career NCAA Tournament game.
He made jump shots. He made layups. He made threes. And he made dunks, five of them.
“We’ve challenged him all year, and he’s challenged himself to get out in transition, to really run,” White said.
“When he wants to, he runs like a deer. When he’s in space, he’s got the ability to get his feet set and make jumpers, and he can really straight-line-drive it, of course. He can take off before physicality and explode to the rim, he usually finishes or draws fouls. He’s a really talented guy.”
Senior point guard Kasey Hill and sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes added full stat lines for the Gators (25-8), who outscored East Tennessee 47-33 in the second half and made 53.8 percent of their shots in that 20-minute span to pull away with the win.
Hill finished with 14 points, six rebounds and five assists. Hayes set a school record with six steals in an NCAA Tournament game. He also chipped in seven points, seven rebounds and a block. Junior point guard Chris Chiozza also added 14 points off the bench, all in the second half.
It was needed, considering leading scorer Allen and SEC Sixth Man of the Year Canyon Barry struggled in the first half (four total points).
“That’s kind of who we are,” White said. “We’ve had eight different leading scorers. It takes a special group to be able to be successful while that happens.”
After pulling out to a 26-14 lead early, Florida missed nine of its final 13 shots to whimper into halftime with just a 33-32 lead. Errant passes, missed layups and just one made three-pointer from Florida on 10 tries allowed East Tennessee State (27-8) to stay in the game through intermission.
“We knew we didn’t play well at all, but we still had a lead,” Chiozza said. “We knew if we just did what we needed to do, we could pull it out.”
The Buccaneers took a minor lead to start the second half on a three-point basket from T.J. Cromer and a layup from Tevin Glass before Florida rattled off a 12-2 Florida run — all on three-point baskets — to give the Gators the lead for good. Cromer led the Buccaneers with 19 points.
Florida extended its lead to as much as 16 late in the game and held at least a nine-point advantage the rest of the way.
Now, they prepare to play Virginia on Saturday in what figures to be a defense-heavy affair.
The Cavaliers are holding opponents to a nation-low 55.6 points per game and held all but five of their opponents to under 70 points.
“We still have a lot more basketball to be played,” Robinson said. “It feels good to get this win, but we’ve still got to get back to watching film tonight and be ready to play Saturday.”