When Justin Leon joined the Gators in the Fall of 2015, the junior college All-American was expected to be a middle of the rotation player with some upside. Fast forward to January 7, 2017 and Leon’s new career-high of 19 points were vital in Florida’s 83-70 takedown of the Tennessee Volunteers at the Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center on Saturday evening.
“I wish he’d fall into a few more open threes per game because he’s shooting the ball so well. He’s an interesting story because he’s never been characterized as a shooter. He was a center in high school and in junior college was a 4-5 type guy who was a slasher and rebounder. Every single day after practice he’s getting a ton of game speed threes up whether he’s feeling good or not,” said Mike White following the best game of Leon’s career.
“He’s a very mentally tough kid and I thought he hit some timely shots for us. Justin’s a junkyard dog for us and I think it’s pretty unique when your junkyard dog happens to be your best percentage shooter at the same time. He’s gotten better with slowing down offensively when the ball is in his hand, yet defensively and on the glass he continues to play like the Tasmanian devil.”
While Leon had the best game of his UF career, it was KeVaughn Allen who led the team with 23 points on 8-13 shooting. Allen went 5-5 from the floor in the second half and 4-4 from downtown. The other Gator in double-digit scoring was Canyon Barry who finished with 15 points and 4 rebounds. Kasey Hill was also important in the victory, closing with 7 points, 7 assists and 2 rebounds. Admiral Schofield led the Volunteers with 18 points before fouling out with 3:45 left in the game.
“KeVaughn [Allen] is one of our best offensive players and like I said before he just makes huge shots,” said Canyon Barry.
— Gators M-Basketball (@GatorsMBK) January 8, 2017
Florida’s decisive advantage in this one was the amount of turnovers they forced throughout the contest. The Gators came away with 19 takeaways leading to 25 points. And while they tied the rebounding battle at 31 boards apiece, UF outscored UT in the paint, 32-28. Both teams shot 50% in the game, but Florida’s 66.7% hit rate in the second half gave them the win.
“I think shooting is kind of contagious, so when one person starts making it, everyone else can kind of capitalize on that and obviously we have great shooters in Justin Leon and Chiozza and of course KeVaughn Allen,” said Canyon Barry. “So, hopefully we continue to shoot it well.”
Justin Leon gave the Gators their first lead of the game on a beautiful rainbow, three-pointer from the corner. A transition lay-up on the following possession off of a KeVaughn Allen steal gave Florid a four-point lead and got the entire O’Connell Center on their feet.
Each team turned the ball over three times in the first three minutes leading to a lot of fast break basketball early in the contest. With four minutes played in the first half the Gators led by two points.
With 11 minutes left in the game both teams were shooting above 50% from the floor in a tight contest with the Vols up 16-14.
A near four-minute scoring drought by the Gators was ended on a Kevarrius Hayes emphatic block followed by a KeVaughn Allen drive and score. Florida diminished Tennessee’s lead to two after that basket with 9:45 remaining in the first twenty minutes.
Florida was forced to play small-ball after Kevarrius Hayes picked up his second foul with 9:10 left in the first half. John Egbunu had two fouls as well at the time, so the two joined each other on the bench. With Keith Stone in at center the Gators hit two threes in a row to take a 21-18 lead.
Two turnovers helped lead to an overall 6-0 run for the Volunteers in under a minute. Tennessee took a 28-23 lead with 6 minutes left in the first half.
With 3:23 left in the first half, Mike White was forced to call a timeout due to the sheer sloppiness of his team’s play on the court. Before a Keith Stone basket his team had gone on a three minute scoring drought finally ended by a Keith Stone tip-in. The Vols led by six at this point in the game.
The Gators ended the half on a 7-2 run, but the Volunteers still led by one going into halftime. KeVaughn Allen and Justin Leon led all Florida scorers with 7 points apiece at the end of the first half. Coincidentally, the two also led the team in rebounding with four rebounds each due to the lack of play from Kevarrius Hayes and John Egbunu due to foul trouble.
Turnovers were the story of the first half for both teams. The Gators turned the ball over 9 times leading to 15 points for the Volunteers, while Tennessee had 10 giveaways leading to 9 points for Florida.
UF had the rebounding advantage over UT at the half, leading 20-15 on the boards, with 7 total offensive rebounds. Both teams shot poorly from downtown in the first twenty minutes as Florida went 2-12 (17%) and Tennessee went 1-5 (20%).
“At halftime, he was calm but he knew it wasn’t our basketball,” said Justin Leon. “In his mind he just had to get us together and get us back playing how Florida plays. He told us just to calm down, play defense and just play our basketball.”
— Florida Gators (@FloridaGators) January 7, 2017
With less than a minute played in the second half, both teams had already turned the ball over once. The Vols opened the final twenty minutes on a 6-2 run giving them a 39-34 lead with 18 minutes left in the game.
Florida hit three shots in a row to take a 42-41 lead with 16:09 remaining in the contest. With a true center in Kevarrius Hayes back in the game, Florida finally looked comfortable around the basket.
A John Egbunu dunk capped a streak of six made shots in a row for the Gators, giving them a 49-45 lead with 13:20 left in the game. Egbunu’s dunk got the O’Connell Center louder than it had been all game.
With eight minutes left in the game the Gators took a 60-56 lead after Justin Leon hit both free throws during a trip to the charity stripe. Those free throws put him at 17 points, tying his career-high that he set against Mercer.
A three-pointer by KeVaughn Allen with 6:59 left in the game nearly caused an earthquake at Exactech Arena and gave Florida their largest lead of the game up to that point at 66-59.
With 3:45 remaining, Admiral Schofield fouled out for the Volunteers. He led Tennessee with 18 points and 10 rebounds. The Gators took a 9-point lead shortly after on a Kasey Hill basket.
Florida closed the game on a 17-7 run to win the game, 83-70. The Gators play next on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. in Tuscaloosa against Alabama