With about eight minutes left in the first half of Florida’s 76-54 win over Mercer on Sunday night, UF forward Devin Robinson was fouled by Bears forward Stephon Jelks after Robinson snagged an offensive rebound, sending the 6-foot-8 junior to the free-throw line for two shots.
He approached the foul line with confidence. Robinson took a few dribbles, spun the ball in his hands and buried both shots, sparking an unprecedented streak at the line for Florida.
After two early misses by guard Kasey Hill, the Gators, who shot just 64.7 percent from the line last season, made 10-straight free throws to close out the first half. For the game, Florida connected on 24 of its 30 attempts.
“You can see in their body language they’re a little more confident at the foul line,” UF coach Mike White said Tuesday. “It’s a big factor for us. It kept us out of the NCAA Tournament last year.”
After being bounced from the National Invitation Tournament at the end of last season, the Gators dedicated much of the offseason to addressing their problems from the line — both mental and physical.
At the end of each practice, a select group of players are sent to the line to shoot pressure free throws. If they miss, the whole team is forced to run.
White also said changes were made in some of the players’ shooting forms, including Hill, who shot 53.8 percent from the line last season. Two games into the season, the athletic 6-foot-1 senior has made seven of his 10 attempts.
To address the mental side of the game, White enlisted the help of a sports psychologist to help the Gators get out of their shooting funk.
“It’s put them in a pretty good place,” White said. “You hope that, moving forward we can continue to be in the same mindset. … I don’t want to sit here and say I think we’re a great free-throw shooting team, but what we’ve seen out of the first two games is actually what we’ve been in practice.”
As for the rest of the offense, things are slowly coming together.
Florida put up 80 points in its season-opener against Florida Gulf Coast on Friday night in a game that featured double-digit scoring from Robinson (14), Hill (11), guard Canyon Barry (13) and center John Egbunu (13).
In Sunday’s contest, every single UF player scored, including a UF career-high 17 points from forward Justin Leon, who went 3-of-5 from beyond the arc and 6-of-10 from the field.
“Our offense, we haven’t really been taking any bad shots,” the 6-foot-8 senior said. “It’s just, stay confident and keep shooting.”
Leon added that the team’s improvement from the free-throw line has taken significant pressure off the offense.
“The stuff we’ve been doing is working,” he said. “We can kind of show that we’ve been taking time out and putting effort in the gym.”
Although Florida’s scoring has improved slightly, shooting efficiency has been an issue early on.
So far this season, the Gators are shooting just 40.7 percent from the field and have made just 12 of 40 three-point attempts.
And KeVaughn Allen lies at the center of Florida’s shooting woes. The sophomore guard has struggled to put the ball in the basket so far this season, shooting 25 percent from the field and 18.2 percent from three.
But coach White’s message to Allen?
Just keep shooting.
“I’m not sure he’s been as aggressive as we want him to be,” White said. “He’s so unselfish that when he’s not in a great offensive rhythm, you know, he’s liable to pass shots up.”
Allen will have a chance to get out of his shooting slump when the Gators square off against St. Bonaventure on Thursday night in Lakeland.
“I always think when he’s shooting it, the next one’s going in, whether he’s missed his last one or last four or five,” White said. “We all know how electric he can be when he gets himself going.”
Florida forward Devin Robinson fights for a shot against Florida Gulf Coast forward Antravious Simmons during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Friday Nov. 11, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. (Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union via AP)