JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s biggest weakness last season looks like it could be a strength now.
Justin Leon scored a career-high 17 points, KeVaughn Allen added 13 and the Gators handled Mercer 76-54 on Sunday night.
Playing in Jacksonville for the second time in three days, Florida (2-0) celebrated another lopsided victory. Leon, Allen and the Gators’ improved free-throw shooting had a lot to do with the latest one.
Leon was 6-of-10 shooting, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range, and had five rebounds. Allen was 3-of-12 shooting and made all five of his free throws. He added five assists, three boards, two blocks and two steals.
Maybe the biggest positive for Florida was its free-throw shooting. The Gators, who ranked 323rd (out of 346 teams) in the NCAA from the stripe last season, hit 20 of 26 in the season opener and then 24 of 30 against Mercer.
“Hopefully a season-long trend,” Florida coach Mike White said. “We’d take that in a heartbeat. It feels good to see that thing go in. … I know it’s got to feel good for our guys, especially the guys that have struggled in the past and are seeing the rewards of their labor.”
Ria’n Holland led the Bears (1-1) with 21 points. Jordan Strawberry, the son of former Major Leaguer Darryl Strawberry, finished with four points.
Mercer trimmed a 24-point deficit to 49-34 midway through the second half, but Florida answered with a 15-5 spurt that pushed the lead to 25. The Gators coasted from there, offsetting 36 percent shooting with 20 offensive rebounds and 22 points off 17 turnovers.
“You can tell they still have another place they can go,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said. “They definitely haven’t arrived yet. … I think that team’s going to be really special, and they’ve only begun. I’ve seen a lot of good teams. I’m an old dude as you can see by my gray hair, and that team has the pieces to be special.
“I will definitely enjoy watching them now that I won’t be playing them.”
Devin Robinson chipped in 12 points and nine rebounds for Florida, which had all 12 players score.
“It feels good when everybody gets to pick off the tree,” Leon said.
Mercer: A preseason pick to finish third in the Southern Conference (behind Chattanooga and Wofford), the Bears have enough talent to do well in league play. Venturing out against power conferences could be a tougher challenge, evidenced by the performance against Florida.
Florida: Although playing against an overmatched opponent, the Gators showed again they have the talent and depth to return to — and maybe make a run in — the NCAA Tournament after a two-year hiatus.
Two Basketball Hall of Famers were on hand for the game. Artis Gilmore, who lives in Jacksonville, and Rick Barry, whose youngest son, Canyon, plays for Florida, spent time chatting in the stands at halftime.
The Gators have won two neutral-site games and will have plenty more chances to build a solid resume. This was the second of 11 consecutive games outside Gainesville for the Gators, who are waiting on completion of a $64.5 million renovation to the O’Connell Center. Their nonconference schedule includes neutral-site matchups against Seton Hall, Duke and maybe Gonzaga. They also play at Florida State. That slate could benefit the Gators when it comes time for the NCAA Tournament.
Mercer gets a week off before playing at Georgia Southern next Sunday, the first of three games in six days.
Florida plays St. Bonaventure in Lakeland on Thursday night.
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