South Carolina forward Chris Silva attacked the rim, put the ball up and had it swatted back by Florida center Kevarrius Hayes.
The emphatic block by Hayes — the SEC’s fourth-leading shot blocker — fewer than two minutes into UF’s 65-41 win over the Gamecocks was indicative of how the Gators (17-8, 8-4 SEC) would defend South Carolina on Saturday in the SEC foes’ second meeting of the season.
“Our best defensive performance of the year,” Gators coach Mike White said after the game. “This team has hung its hat on shots and points, and that’s not a formula for success at the highest level.”
Florida avenged a 77-72 loss on Jan. 24 and improved to 4-2 on the road thanks to its most consistent defensive performance this season. Florida set season-bests in points allowed, opponents shooting percentage (.280) and opponents’ three-point percentage (.150).
UF also had its best effort of the season on the boards, out-rebounding South Carolina 46-24, and its plus-24 margin of victory was its highest since Nov. 16.
“We played with a lot of toughness and collectively rebounded as well as we have all year,” White said.
The Gators stayed out of foul trouble, an issue for the team in its last meeting with the Gamecocks. UF limited South Carolina — which averaged 25 free throw attempts per game, good for ninth in the country — to 15 attempts from the line on Saturday.
The victory was just its second in the last six contests against the Gamecocks. The 41 points it allowed against South Carolina (13-12, 4-8 SEC) was its fewest in a regular season game since Nov. 13, 2015, when it defeated Navy 59-41.
Florida set the tone on defense early, recording back-to-back blocks by Hayes and forward Keith Stone, while holding South Carolina to 0-for-6 shooting and a turnover on the Gamecocks’ first seven possessions.
The Gators led by as much as 21 in the opening period, taking a 41-20 lead into the half. They cooled down offensively after the break, putting up 24 points in the final 20 minutes. However, its defense clamped down on South Carolina after it scored the first four points of the second half, giving up just 17 the rest of the way.
Florida pulled ahead by as much as 27 and led by double figures for the final 32:18 of the game.
Silva (18 points and 12 rebounds in the last matchup) was held to 10 points and five boards on 4-of-12 shooting and struggled with foul trouble, getting called for a game-high four. The Gamecocks' lone bright spot was senior guard Frank Booker, who led all players with 17 points.
The Gators played a balanced rotation with freshmen Dontay Bassett, Mike Okauru and Deaundrae Ballard, along with sophomore Gorjok Gak, all eclipsing their season average in minutes played. Basset set a career high, spending 16 minutes on the floor.
“(Our freshmen) have to evolve and grow and develop,” White said, “but it’s hard for them to do that when I’m not giving them opportunities.”
Usual sixth man Jalen Hudson started in favor of KeVaughn Allen, who struggled from the field, finishing with four points on 1-of-6 shooting.
Hudson and senior guard Chris Chiozza led Florida with 12 points each. Chiozza entered the game leading the SEC with 6.0 assists per game, but only dished out three against the Gamecocks. He did grab seven rebounds, tied with Bassett and guard Egor Koulechov for the most in the game.
UF’s next contest is a rematch with Georgia, which beat the Gators 72-60 in Athens earlier this season. Tipoff is set for 9 p.m. on Feb. 14 at the O’Connell Center.
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Forward Kevarrius Hayes led a resurgent Florida defense against South Carolina Saturday afternoon. The junior provided two blocks and five rebounds in 15 minutes.