Florida freshman point guard Mike Okauru had a feeling he could be called upon for early minutes Wednesday night against LSU.
With the Gators trying to find ways to keep senior point guard Chris Chiozza more fresh for the stretch run of the season, Okauru was told by Florida coach Mike White to stay ready.
“He definitely talked to me about it,” Okauru said.
Okauru helped spark a more productive bench effort for the Gators on Wednesday, finishing with nine points and a steal in 17 minutes in UF’s 73-64 win over the Tigers. Overall, Florida got 16 points from its bench after scoring just one bench point in its 68-50 loss last Saturday against Alabama.
Okauru’s nine points were his most since scoring nine points off the bench on Jan. 13 at Ole Miss. The Raleigh, N.C., native has emerged as UF’s most dependable freshman this season, averaging 3.5 points while shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range.
“I just want to help the team in any way I can,” Okauru said. “I feel in the Alabama game I didn’t do that. Today I did. So whatever way I can help the team, that’s what I’m trying to do.”
The 6-foot-3 Okauru first checked into the game at the 14:04 mark and hit an important shot, a 3-pointer that cut LSU’s lead to 20-14. In the second half, Okauru made a nice cut along the baseline and finished on a reverse layup on a feed from Chiozza, extending UF’s lead at the time back to 50-41.
“He was very good defensively and he did a good job cutting, offensively,” White said. “Offensively, I thought he had a big drive to his left, opposite our bench. I thought that was a timely basket for us. We needed that one. He really stepped up.”
White said the lone mistake Okauru made was fouling LSU guard Brandon Sampson on a three-point attempt late in the first half. Sampson made two of three free throws to put LSU up 27-23.
“He relaxed off the ball for a split second and in this league, as a freshman, guys have to understand that he can’t do that, now he’s late on the close out and we foul,” White said.
Bench production could play an important role for Florida. Chiozza logged 35 more minutes in UF’s win over LSU and spent most of it chasing around freshman standout point guard Tremont Waters, helping hold Waters to nine points on 3-of-15 shooting. The do-everything Chiozza has hit a mini slump, shooting just 3 of 14 from the field with six turnovers in his last two games.
“I don’t know that it’s physical,” White said. “I would think it’s more of a mental grind, a taxing factor mentally more than physically, if it’s anything. I was going to meet with Chris today for a bit. He’s not playing his best basketball, right now, of course and we need him to. I talked about it last night his teammates have asked him to lead a little bit and to be more vocal and maybe he’s carrying that burden a little bit. But defensively … he was terrific.”
Florida is still looking to get more off the bench from center Gorjok Gak, forward Dontay Bassett and freshman swingman Deaundrae Ballard. White said Ballard did not play Wednesday night due to matchups, but has been practicing well the past two to three weeks.
“I’m hoping that we can get deeper in our bench, those guys can get us more and more minutes,” White said. “As you try to continue to improve, throughout February, during this stretch, as a staff, we feel like maybe that’s one of the ways we can make another jump.”
Who: Florida (16-8, 7-4 SEC) vs. South Carolina (13-11, 4-7)
When: 12 p.m.
Where: Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, S.C.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850