Florida has desperately needed them in some of its close, winnable losses this season.
The Gators have had their chances at the free-throw line, but more often than not, they have failed to convert their free throws at even a below-average percentage.
Saturday night was the exception.
In Florida’s (13-6, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) 95-63 drubbing of the Auburn Tigers (9-9, 3-4 SEC) in the O’Connell Center, the Gators had one of their best all-around shooting performances of the year. Florida’s 56.9 percent field-goal shooting (33-of-58) was a season high, and its 47.4 percent from three (9-of-19) was the second-best performance of the year.
A number that really stood out was 83.3 percent: the team’s 20-of-24 effort from the charity stripe, by far a season best.
"I told our guys I was shocked," coach Mike White said after the win. "It’s much needed. If you’re going to win games in the SEC, you’ve got to convert from the foul line."
Dorian Finney-Smith and Kasey Hill each shot 3-of-3, John Egbunu and KeVaughn Allen each shot 4-of-6 and Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson and Kevarrius Hayes all went 2-of-2.
In three of Florida’s six losses this season, the Gators lost by less than 10 points. In those three losses, Florida shot a combined 33-of-59 from the free throw line.
The Gators lost to then-No.1 Michigan State on the road by just six points, 58-52. Florida missed eight free throws in that game. In a two-point loss to Florida State, the Gators missed 10 free throws, and in a three-point loss to Texas A&M, Florida missed eight free throws.
Winning games can come down to making free throws, and even though Saturday’s contest wasn’t close enough to depend on free throw performance, the Gators finally cashed in.
"I’ve been practicing every day, trying to find my rhythm, because I have been struggling for a while now," Hayes said of his free throw shooting. The freshman went 2-of-2 from the stripe on Saturday after starting SEC play 0-of-8.
"We always work on it," Hayes said. "We actually have a drill we do each day, we have to make a certain percentage as a team.
And tonight we showed that it’s paying off."
Hayes played an impressive 16 minutes off the bench against Auburn as starting center Egbunu struggled with foul trouble. Hayes scored six points, grabbed six rebounds and tallied two blocks and one steal. His improvement at the free throw line makes him that much more valuable coming off the bench.
Finney-Smith scored 24 points in Florida’s win over Auburn, and the redshirt senior knows that with two tough games against Vanderbilt and West Virginia looming this week, Florida will need to continue to shoot well from all areas of the floor to give the Gators a chance.
"We got two tough games coming up, two great teams," Finney-Smith said. "On the road (at Vanderbilt), that’s gonna be tough. We’re gonna have to play our best basketball to get this win."