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Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Defense carrying UF basketball near season's end

<p>John Egbunu shoots a free throw during Florida's 61-55 loss to Alabama on Feb. 13, 2016, in the O'Connell Center.</p>

John Egbunu shoots a free throw during Florida's 61-55 loss to Alabama on Feb. 13, 2016, in the O'Connell Center.

The 20-point scoring barrage began abruptly.

During a seven-minute stretch to end the first half of Saturday’s overtime loss to South Carolina, Florida rallied from 30-13 to take a 33-30 lead over the Gamecocks.

UF coach Mike White gave a simple explanation for the game’s shift in momentum.

"Just getting stops, really," White said on Monday. "It gives us a chance."

With four games left in the season and with a fifth-place spot in the Southeastern Conference, Florida still has a chance.

A chance to expect more than an early exit in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, and a chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament in early March.

And the main reason has been because of Florida’s defense.

While playing the country’s No. 13-ranked strength of schedule, UF’s defense has allowed just 66.2 points per game, good for second in the SEC and a respectable 48th in the nation.

At the center of Florida’s defense has been redshirt sophomore John Egbunu, the Gators’ 6-foot-11 rim protector who, more often than not, tends to dictate how well Florida plays.

When Egbunu scores in double digits, the Gators are 14-4. When he fouls out, they’re 0-5.

"Foul trouble has been a big key," White said of Egbunu.

"I think it’s just the process of understanding how teams are defending him differently. And I think with all young, developing bigs, confidence is a factor. I think you can see it with John’s body language as much as anyone on our team."

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Florida (17-10, 8-6 SEC) will look for another strong defensive outing when it hosts Vanderbilt (16-11, 8-6 SEC) tonight at 7, and especially from Egbunu, who struggled in the Gators’ one-point loss to the Commodores in Nashville on Jan. 26.

Egbunu fouled out in 23 minutes, collecting two points and four rebounds while turning the ball over twice. It was his second-lowest point total of the season.

During preseason scrimmages in October, White hoped Egbunu would develop into UF’s defensive anchor, allowing Florida to pressure on the perimeter and funnel guards into the paint, where Egbunu would alter shots at the rim.

That plan hasn’t quite come to fruition, in part due to Egbunu’s defensive and offensive inconsistencies this season.

White has said that coaches have worked with the sophomore on remaining engaged defensively when his shots aren’t falling.

"I personally feel like my defensive mindset is pretty strong throughout the game," Egbunu said.

"But like every player, I think I’ve had slippages and things like that."

Florida’s interior was overwhelmed by Vanderbilt center Luke Kornet in its loss last month. The 7-foot-1 junior blocked six UF shots and grabbed nine rebounds, rendering Egbunu helpless for a majority of his time on the court.

"I think he’s due for a big game here at some point," White said of Egbunu.

"We certainly would welcome that (today)."

Contact Ian Cohen at and follow him on Twitter @icohenb

John Egbunu shoots a free throw during Florida's 61-55 loss to Alabama on Feb. 13, 2016, in the O'Connell Center.

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