On UF basketball: Dogged Leon provides needed lift


Published: Saturday, January 7, 2017 at 9:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2017 at 9:19 p.m.

On a night when black was the theme, Justin Leon came out of a black hole.

The senior forward had become almost an afterthought on this Florida basketball team. The hot shooting of KeVaughn Allen, the emergence of Devin Robinson, the new baby-faced bomber Canyon Barry, those had been the stories.

Justin Leon? He’s still starting?

Leon had been in a slump and when you are a player the offense is not designed to set up for shots, it can be hard to shoot your way out of one.

In his last six games, Leon was averaging 4.8 points and 2.5 rebounds.

“I kind of went through my own little drought,” he said.

And while the new arena has been getting rave reviews, Leon was not the biggest fan. On Saturday night, he rattled off his stats in the new O-Dome coming into the game.

From the field, 2-for-12. From three, 1-for-8.

Bring back the old place.

But Florida coach Mike White, who meets with each player individually every day, didn’t change his message to Leon this week. Be who you are. Keep taking good shots. Don't go hunting for shots.

On Saturday night against Tennessee, they found him and he found his touch.

Leon scored a career-high 19 points and had a team-leading six rebounds. Even on a night when Allen had an unconscious second half shooting and Barry scored 15 and Kasey Hill had seven assists, well, let’s put it this way — Florida isn’t 3-0 in the SEC if Leon doesn’t have the kind of game he had against the Vols.

Here’s why. Florida’s big men — Kevarrius Hayes and John Egbunu — spent most of the night in foul trouble. They combined for 21 minutes, five points and two rebounds.

Meanwhile, Robinson reverted back to last year’s Devin Robinson for some reason. He had four points and four turnovers.

Someone had to pick up the slack.

“Sometimes those guys steal my rebounds,” Leon joked. “But with those guys in foul trouble, somebody had to do it. I guess I had to step up.”

The hot night started early for Leon when he made a rainbow 3-point shot for Florida’s first basket of the game.

“I shot it so high, I thought I was going to airball it,” Leon said.

Instead, it settled into the net and Leon was off and running. He’d finish the night 5-of-6 shooting with a pair of steals. He also provided a hustle play on a rebound that got the crowd going.

“It feels good to get yourself on track,” Leon said. “I tell myself every night I’m going to have a big game even though I was going through the bad.

“Tonight was the night to get it back. Sometimes you go through a drought and then you get out of it. A lot of shots come and a lot of shots fall and you get to step out of it.”

Leon is Florida’s best 3-point shooter by percentage. After Saturday night, he’s shooting 45.5 percent from beyond the arc. It’s just that he doesn’t take a bunch because Florida’s not trying to set him up the way they do Allen or Barry.

Through 15 games, he’s averaging slightly less than three attempts a game. So while it’s not like the Gators are trying to get him free, you’d better not leave him alone.

“He’s an interesting story because he’s never been characterized as a shooter,” White said. “He was a center in high school and then a slash four/five guy.

“But he works so hard at it. Every single day after practice, he’s getting a ton of game-speed 3s up whether he feels well or not. He’s our junkyard dog and it’s pretty unique when your junkyard dog is your best percentage shooter.”

We’ll see where Leon goes from here, but all we know for sure is that on a night where Florida was struggling with first-half turnovers, he helped keep the Gators in the game. And when they needed to counter punch Tennessee early in the second half, Leon scored UF’s first five points.

And that he made every free throw he tried, all six of them.

The drought is over. Let’s see if it keeps raining.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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