ORLANDO, Fla. — For a team that puts so much energy and effort into defense, Florida’s performance against Virginia was as close to perfect as possible.
Devin Robinson had 14 points and 11 rebounds, the fifth double-double of his career, and the fourth-seeded Gators handled the No. 5 seed Cavaliers 65-39 on Saturday night in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Justin Leon added 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Gators (26-8), who advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the 11th time in school history and fifth in the last seven years. They will play No. 8 seed Wisconsin in the East Regional in New York City on Friday.
They can thank stingy defense and a ridiculous run spanning halftime for this trip to Madison Square Garden.
“That’s about as well as we’ve played defensively,” Florida coach Mike White said. “We put a lot of it together tonight.”
Florida held Virginia (23-11) to a season-low 17 points in the first half and 29.6 percent shooting on the night. The Cavaliers hadn’t scored fewer than 40 points since December 2013, a 48-38 loss to the Badgers.
The turning point in this game came late in the first half, when the Gators started a 21-0 run that was their most lopsided of the season. Speedy guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza repeatedly broke down Virginia’s “pack line” defense, creating open looks for Leon and Robinson.
“We just had had to get them uncomfortable and play our tempo,” said Robinson, who scored 24 points in his NCAA opener. “We knew if we played at their methodical tempo, it would have been a tough game for us. We tried to stay aggressive on defense and get in transition as best as we can, and that turned to great offense.”
Florida closed the first half with a 12-0 spurt and built a 14-point lead at the break. The Gators came out of the locker room with the same intensity, scoring nine straight points that included two 3-pointers from Leon.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett called time out, but it was too little, too late.
The Gators were up 23 points against a team that has dealt with offensive challenges all season.
“If we’re not shooting well, it’s hard for us,” Bennett said.
It surely didn’t help that the Cavaliers played without forward Isaiah Wilkins, who missed the game while dealing with strep throat.
Wilkins leads the team in rebounds, blocks and steals, and Bennett called him the “heart and soul of our defense.” Without him, the Gators attacked the post regularly, with Leon and Robinson benefiting.
Virginia: The reason the Cavaliers failed to advance was obvious. Even they knew they would be doomed if leading scorer London Perrantes and fellow guard Marial Shayok stopped making shots, and they were. Perrantes was 2 of 12, and Shayok 2 of 9.
“We were trying to get something going, but it was one of those days where we couldn’t do anything to get the shots to fall,” Shayok said. “Obviously their defense bothered us, but we missed easy shots, wide-open shots. We missed a lot of shots we usually make. Nobody wants to lose like that. That was not good.”
Florida: The Gators might be a handful moving forward because of their defensive prowess and number of scoring options.
There’s little doubt that Leon is done wearing an undershirt. In an attempt to end a shooting slump, the senior went without a T-shirt under his jersey for the first time in two years at Florida.
“I was trying to find something different,” he said. “So I did it, and hey.”
Here’s maybe the most promising part for Florida: Leading scorer KeVaughn Allen and Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year Canyon Barry were quiet again. Allen had four points on 2-of-10 shooting, and Barry finished with seven points during a 1-for-4 night.
Perrantes chucked the ball at the scorer’s table in frustration in the second half, but avoided a technical foul.
Florida plays Wisconsin on Friday in Madison Square Garden.
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