UF BASKETBALL

Gators receive productive minutes from unlikely source


Florida forward Justin Leon (23) congratulates center Gorjok Gak (12) after Gak dunked against Virginia during the second half Saturday.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, March 19, 2017 at 6:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 19, 2017 at 6:52 p.m.

ORLANDO — Unlikely heroes often emerge in March.

Facts

East Regional Semifinal

Who: No. 4 seed Florida (26-8) vs. No. 8 seed Wisconsin (27-9)
When: Friday, 9:59 p.m.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York
TV: TBS
Radio: 103.7-FM

Few could have expected Florida freshman center Gorjok Gak to be a contributor at this point in the season. But circumstances have dictated it, and the 6-foot-11 Gak is making the most of his opportunity.

Gak scored a career-high six points in UF's 65-39 Round of 32 win over Virginia on Saturday night at the Amway Center. In UF's first two NCAA Tournament games, Gak is averaging five points and 1.5 rebounds in 8.5 minutes off the bench.

For a player who didn't appear in 21 of UF's first 32 games, Gak is enjoying his time playing on college basketball's biggest stage.

“It means a whole lot, just staying patient and waiting your turn,” Gak said. “That's all I've been doing.”

Gak's playing time was limited early in the season because Florida had a pair of experienced centers in junior John Egbunu and sophomore Kevarrius Hayes. Then, when Egbunu went down with a torn ACL on Feb. 14 against Auburn, Gak also was sidelined with a foot sprain.

Gak returned to action March 1 against Arkansas, finishing with two points and two rebounds in eight minutes off the bench. But when Florida coach Mike White opted to go with smaller lineups in a pair of games against Vanderbilt, Gak was back on the bench.

Gak scored four points off the bench in UF's 80-65 over East Tennessee State on Thursday. Then, at the 13:19 mark of the first half Saturday, White summoned Gak against Virginia. Gak said he wasn't surprised by the quick call off the bench.

“He just told me just stay ready and that's what I did,” Gak said. “Just when he called my number, go out there and do whatever I could to help the team.”

Gak made an impact early with a tip-in basket on an offensive rebound and by beating Virginia down the court in transition on a breakaway dunk to put Florida up 15-13.

“I saw D-Robb (Devin Robinson) sky up for the rebound, so I said, I'm out,” Gak said. “I try to win all the sprints in practice, when it comes to the game I just try to beat everyone down the court.”

In the second half, Gak caught a whip pass from Florida point guard Chris Chiozza and went up quickly for a dunk. On a similar pass like that from Chiozza last November against Gonzaga, Gak was unable to catch the ball. But Gak said he's spent the season working on his hand-eye coordination. White and assistant coach Dusty May have been throwing him basketballs and tennis balls from close range.

“Just a lot of reps, trying to get my hand-eye coordination right,” Gak said.

No one is happier for Gak than Hayes, who has watched the Sydney, Australia native grow and mature during the course of the season.

“It's good to watch him play,” Hayes said. “I remember when he first got here and it was like, just kind of wondering. But he's been working hard. I see him in the weight room, sometimes he lifts before practice and he goes hard, as hard as anyone out there. He's just trying to get better.”

The Gators will likely need more minutes from Gak when they face Wisconsin on Friday in their Sweet 16 matchup in New York City. The Badgers boast size across the frontline with 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward Nigel Hayes and 6-10 sophomore center Ethan Happ.

“I just need to stay super ready,” Gak said. “Same thing just keep defending and running the floor and do whatever I can to help the team.”

Record defensive day

Florida's 65-39 win over Virginia in the Round of 32 turned out to be a record-setting day for UF's defense.

The 39 points was the fewest that UF has allowed in an NCAA Tournament game. The previous low was 45 points, which was done twice, once against Virginia (March 16, 2012) and once against Pittsburgh (March 22, 2014).

“To hold them to 39 points on defense is a high achievement for us,” Hayes said. “Now we know what we can really do when we're all locked in.”

Florida held Virginia scoreless in a 7:55 stretch that spanned from the end of the first half to the start of the second half during a 21-0 run, which was UF's biggest of the season.

“Really proud of the defensive effort, the focus, the lock in,” White said. “Especially when we got up, I don't know, say 16, we didn't have a drop-off, and we've had that four or five times this year. We didn't have it tonight.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or kevin.brockway@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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