Saturday’s contest was supposed to be a feel-good moment for Florida fans, with former coach Billy Donovan in the building for the unveiling of the court named in his honor.
By the halftime ceremony, his successor and the suddenly surging Gators had made sure to do just that.
Noah Locke had 19 points on 6-for-8 three-point shooting, Kerry Blackshear provided 15 points and a team-high five assists, as Florida led from coast-to-coast before claiming a 84-66 win over Vanderbilt (9-16, 1-11 SEC) in a contest that had all the makings of a trap game, yet was anything but after the first five minutes of action.
“I wanted them locked in, obviously, on the scouting report, and on the Vanderbilt Commodores, and us doing our jobs as well as we could,” coach Mike White said. “I thought we did a pretty good job, especially the first 20 (minutes).”
Led by strong shooting and sound defensive play, particularly from freshman Omar Payne, the Gators (16-9, 8-4 SEC) quickly turned a two-point lead into a rout after the game’s opening minutes. Payne hauled in four offensive rebounds, recorded three blocks and a pair of putbacks to help the Gators turn their slim lead into an ultimately insurmountable deficit.
“Omar Payne played with great activity in the first half, he was fantastic,” White said. “Best he’s played in awhile.”
Tre Mann, who provided seven points in 22 minutes of action, concurred, saying Payne’s presence in the paint can inspire the Gators to play with further conviction.
“He knows how important he is to us, especially on the defensive end,” Mann said of Payne. “Somebody drove past me, and he blocked his shot. I’m used to seeing him do it in practice, and it feels good to know he’s doing it in a game, too. When he’s there, he’s got our back.”
With 22 seconds remaining in the first half, Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse was ejected while arguing with the officiating crew after Matthew Moyer went down hard with an apparent left shoulder injury. Stackhouse appeared incensed at the lack of a call, and promptly let the nearest official know it, resulting in a double-technical and swift ejection.
As Stackhouse watched from the visiting locker room, the Gators proceeded to take a 48-19 advantage into the halftime break, erasing any notion that Donovan would receive anything but a warm reception when it was his moment to return to the O’Connell Center spotlight.
“I’m just so glad, that on a night where the University of Florida and Gator nation is honoring Billy Donovan, that we’re able to get a win,” White said. “This was a big night for our athletic department, and coach’s legacy, and for us to simply win this game was big. I’m glad that we played really well in the first 20.”
After scoring 24 points – on an ailing ankle, no less – Wednesday at Texas A&M, Andrew Nembhard picked up two early fouls en route to playing his fewest minutes of the season. After nailing the game’s first basket, Nembhard wouldn’t score again until the final two minutes of action, with the game well out of reach.
As the Gators prepare to enter a decisive final stretch, one where they’ll presumably need their floor general at his best, White acknowledged that an opportunity to rest Nembhard for an extended stretch was simply too good to pass up – although it did come with potential repercussions, ones that could come into play Tuesday against Arkansas.
“The negative on it is you want him to be in a really good rhythm, and you want him to play and ride the momentum, because I thought he was really good the other day. Going into the Arkansas game, you want him to continue to have that momentum,” White said of Nembhard. “The foul trouble for him was tough, and we had a decision late to keep him in for the last two minutes, and at that point, that comes into your mind – the longevity of the SEC season, the ankle, and we’ve got a really quick turnaround.”
Disu 3-7 1-2 7, Obinna 3-5 0-0 6, Evans 3-7 1-2 10, Lee 5-11 10-11 23, Pippen 2-8 6-6 12, Wright 3-8 2-2 8, Albert 0-0 0-0 0, Moyer 0-1 0-0 0, Jankovic 0-1 0-0 0, Jossell 0-0 0-0 0, Rice 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-49 20-23 66.
Blackshear 4-6 6-7 15, Johnson 5-11 1-2 11, Lewis 2-7 4-4 9, Locke 6-8 1-2 19, Nembhard 2-4 0-0 5, Glover 3-7 2-4 8, Mann 2-5 2-2 7, Payne 2-2 1-5 5, Jitoboh 1-2 2-2 4, Bassett 0-0 0-0 0, Sutherland 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 27-52 20-30 84.
Halftime_Florida 48-19. 3-Point Goals_Vanderbilt 8-17 (Evans 3-5, Lee 3-5, Pippen 2-3, Wright 0-1, Disu 0-3), Florida 10-20 (Locke 6-8, Blackshear 1-2, Lewis 1-2, Nembhard 1-2, Mann 1-3, Johnson 0-1, Glover 0-2). Fouled Out_Obinna. Rebounds_Vanderbilt 27 (Lee 7), Florida 29 (Johnson, Payne 6). Assists_Vanderbilt 11 (Pippen 6), Florida 16 (Blackshear 5). Total Fouls_Vanderbilt 25, Florida 23. A_10,151 (10,133).