GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While Florida’s newly-renovated basketball arena has been a hit with just about everybody, senior forward Justin Leon hadn’t quite taken to the place as quickly.
He had been struggling mightily with his shot in the Gators’ first two home games inside Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center.
But that all changed Saturday. Leon drained 3-of-4 3-pointers and scored a career-high 19 points to help spur No. 23 Florida to an 83-70 win over Tennessee.
“I guess I went through my own little drought. I know since the O’Dome opened, I think I was like 1-for-9 from 3 and 3-for-12 from the field. But it feels good to finally get myself back on track,” he said.
It was actually 1-for-8 and 2-for-12, but that was then.
Leon’s breakout game was his first double-digit scoring performance since Dec. 1 and another reminder of the depth the Gators (12-3, 3-0 SEC) possess.
Between those cold-shooting nights in the first two home games, Leon did knock down 2-of-4 3s at Arkansas, and for the season, the 6-foot-8 forward is now shooting 45.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line (20-of-44).
“You wish he’d fall into a few more open 3s a game because he’s shooting the ball so well,” coach Mike White said. “He’s an interesting story because he’s never been characterized as a shooter. He was a center in high school, and then in junior college he was a guy that ends up being kind of a 4/5 type guy who is a slasher, rebounder. He’s just really, really worked on his game.
“Every single day after practice he’s getting a ton of game-speed 3s up, regardless of whether he feels good or not, whether we practiced 3 hours or 1 hour. It’s who he is. Very mentally tough kid. I thought he hit some timely shots for us, doesn’t even think about it. It doesn’t faze him.”
Leon also tallied 6 rebounds and 2 steals in that game. He’s started every game for Florida this season, and even if the stat line hasn’t always been eye-popping, White likes what he brings on both ends of the floor.
“He’s a junkyard dog for us, and I think it’s pretty unique when your junkyard dog is your best percentage (3-point) shooter at the same time,” he said. “He’s gotten better with slowing down offensively when the ball’s in his hands, yet defensively on the glass still continuing to play like a Tasmanian devil.”
Leon will look to build on his offensive breakout Tuesday night as the Gators visit Alabama (9 p.m. ET, ESPNU).
“With this, it shows what I can do, and if I can keep this up all of us, I think, we’ll get to another, higher level,” he said.