Gators at South Carolina for first SEC road contest

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Florida forward Kerry Blackshear, Jr. (24) attacks the basket as Alabama defender Galin Smith (30) tries to block his shot during Saturday's game at Exactech Arena in Gainesville. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Florida (9-4, 1-0) vs. South Carolina (8-5, 0-0)

Colonial Life Arena, Columbia, South Carolina; Tuesday, 7 p.m. EST, ESPNU, 103.7-FM


Fresh off the largest comeback in program history, the Florida men’s basketball team has no time to grow complacent and rest on its laurels.

When Florida and South Carolina tip off at 7 p.m. today in the Colonial Life Arena, fifth-year UF coach Mike White is hoping the team maintains the momentum created in the wake of the double-overtime victory Saturday over Alabama.

The Gators trailed by five with 30 seconds to play and led just once before overtime, yet managed to secure the critical conference opener – thanks, in part, to the free throw line. 

 In the 10 minutes of extra play Saturday, the Gators scored 11 of their 21 points at the free throw line; meanwhile, the Crimson Tide split their lone pair of free throws. 

Graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr., who went 10-for-11 at the charity stripe against Alabama and leads the team in both free-throw percentage and attempts, credited his steady shooting from the line to one simple thing: a concerted effort to improve his game.

“I shot really bad my freshman year, so it was really only up from there. But it’s just something I’ve focused on,” Blackshear said. “Also, like, when I’m working out, back home especially, I try to game-time free throws, so every time, instead of resting right away, I try to get some free throws when I’m tired, and I think that’s helped and has helped my game this year.”

Blackshear’s father, who starred on Stetson University’s basketball team and was inducted into the program’s Hall of Fame in 2002, instilled in his son a free-throw-shooting mantra of sorts from an early age. 

“He is a really good (free throw) shooter,” he said. “He told me good shooters have to shoot over 80 (percent), so that’s something that has been a goal of mine, and I’m going to try to do it for the rest of the season.”

 And it’s a message that resurfaces in each Florida practice, said freshman Scottie Lewis.
“We probably shoot 200 free throws a day, and if we don’t reach above 80 percent we run in practice,” Lewis revealed, “so I think in the back of our minds, when we’re shooting in games, we don’t want to run, so that kind of, obviously, helps.”

With no shortage of tough opponents to face over the next two months, the Gators are hoping the sound shooting at the free throw line is here to stay.  

“I think we’re a pretty good free throw shooting team. It starts probably with (Kerry) KJ Blackshear,” White said. “He probably has helped spread that confidence at the foul line a bit. He’s got the ability to draw fouls at a high rate. He understands how to draw fouls. You got to foul him or he’ll score. Then he gets up there, steps up with confidence and he makes it at a high level. I don’t know the numbers on this – I ought to know them off the top of my head – but this is the best foul-drawing team that I’ve had. Ever I think. Hopefully we’ll continue to get better at converting. It feels good especially late game that you’re in a good rhythm and you step up there with confidence.”


PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

Keyontae Johnson;F;6-5;231;So.;13.0 ppg;6.8 rpg

Kerry Blackshear Jr.;F;6-10;241;Gr.;14.9 ppg;9.0 rpg 

Andrew Nembhard;G;6-5;193;So.;10.6 ppg;5.8 apg

Noah Locke;G;6-3;207;So.;10.2 ppg;3.3 rpg 

Omar Payne;F;6-10;223;Fr.;4.3 ppg;4.0 rpg

South Carolina

Justin Manaya;F;    6-6;215;RSo.;7.2 ppg;5.5 rpg

Maik Kotsar;F;6-11;270;Sr.;9.7 ppg;5.8 rpg

Keyshawn Bryant;F;6-5;197;So.;7.6 ppg;1.8 rpg

A.J. Lawson;G;6-6;178;So.;15.5 ppg;3.1 rpg

Jair Bolden;G;6-3;215;RJr.;9.4 ppg;3.3 rpg

Notes: Florida visits South Carolina for the lone regular season meeting between the teams. The Gators enter off a double overtime victory against Alabama in their SEC opener, coming back from a 21-point deficit, down 8 with 2:00 in regulation and behind 5 with 30 seconds remaining … The road team has won the last 3 meetings in the series, with South Carolina taking last season’s only meeting in Gainesville … Over the past 3 games, Kerry Blackshear has shot 33-for-36 (.917) from the free throw line. His 7 double-doubles this year are the most by a Gator since Dorian Finney-Smith had 8 in 2015-16.

— Graham Hall


BOTTOM LINE: SEC foes meet as Florida battles South Carolina. Florida beat Alabama by six in overtime on Saturday, while South Carolina fell to Stetson last week, 63-56.

BIG MEN ON CAMPUS: South Carolina’s AJ Lawson has averaged 15.5 points while Maik Kotsar has put up 9.7 points and 5.8 rebounds. For the Gators, Kerry Blackshear Jr. has averaged 14.9 points and nine rebounds while Keyontae Johnson has put up 13 points and 6.8 rebounds.

BRILLIANT BLACKSHEAR JR.: Blackshear has connected on 32.4 percent of the 37 3-pointers he’s attempted and has made 6 of 14 over the last three games. He’s also made 84.4 percent of his free throws this season.

UNBEATEN WHEN: The Gamecocks are 5-0 when they score at least 74 points and 3-5 when they fall shy of that total. The Gators are 6-0 when at least four of their players score in double-figures and 3-4 on the year otherwise.

ACCOUNTING FOR ASSISTS: The Gamecocks have recently used assists to create baskets more often than the Gators. South Carolina has an assist on 34 of 70 field goals (48.6 percent) across its previous three outings while Florida has assists on 38 of 90 field goals (42.2 percent) during its past three games.

DID YOU KNOW: Florida has committed a turnover on just 17.6 percent of its possessions this season, which is the top rate among all SEC teams. The Gators have turned the ball over only 12.1 times per game this season.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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