Gators look for a fast start in key SEC road game at Georgia

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Georgia guard Anthony Edwards drives around Florida guard Andrew Nembhard on his way to score during the Feb. 5 game at the O’Connell Center. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer/File]
Who: Florida (18-11, 10-6 SEC) vs. Georgia (15-14, 5-11)
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Stegeman Coliseum, Athens, Georgia
TV: ESPNU
Radio: 103.7-FM

In Knoxville, the slow starts continued as the Gators attempted just 18 shots to Tennessee’s 29 en route to 17 first-half points. It was another step back for a team that had taken multiple steps forward throughout February.
Coach Mike White expects the Gators to respond well when UF tips off in Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia – although Monday’s practice session was more of the same.
“We got off to a really tough start in practice yesterday,” White said Tuesday. “You’d hope we have a great practice today. I thought we finished pretty strong yesterday, but we’ve got to be sharp today.”
They were anything but sharp in the first half last Saturday, committing 11 turnovers while making just six shots from the field, resulting in a double-digit deficit at the break.
However, the second half was another indication the Gators, while imperfect, have made significant strides on the offensive end. Florida shot 55 percent, committed just three turnovers and outscored the Vols by double digits yet came up just short of another unlikely comeback win.
Surely not the result Florida hoped for, but further proof the team could elevate its play with the postseason looming – that is, if the Gators can avoid the slumps that make second-half rallies meaningless.
“I think every team’s got issues. I hate for the narrative to be how many issues we have. We are who we are. We’ve consistently improved throughout the year. We’ve seen some really good halves, some games where we’ve played 30 really good minutes, and we’re just nitpicking. We’re trying to max out the youngest team in the league is what we’re trying to do. It’s not all negative,” White said. “Going into Tennessee, we were playing very well and then played really well in the second half to give ourselves a chance. Is there another jump this team can make? Yeah, I think there’s always (one) as long as you got games in front of you and practices in front of you. We’ve just got to take advantage of these. But, again, tomorrow will be very difficult.”
Though the furious second-half rally did pay off in UF’s previous meeting with Georgia. The Gators dug out of a 22-point hole, tying the largest comeback in program history, and claimed a 81-75 win, but White knows Georgia, too, has improved since the last battle.
“I think (Sahvir) Wheeler really got them going against Arkansas. The level that he is attacking the rim is high,” White said. “What he is doing right now to complement Anthony Edwards, the toughest cover in our league and possibly the country. Rayshaun Hammonds is shooting the ball well, Tyree Crump is shooting the ball well. Jordan Harris is a really good cutter, driver. I think they are the best cutting team in our league.
“They are really playing offensively, shots are going for them right now. They are one of the toughest covers in our league right now.”
Edwards erupted for 32 points in the previous showing in Gainesville, although the Gators did make the necessary defensive corrections in the second half, opting to switch to a 2-3 zone to limit what the Dawgs were looking to run.
To avoid another slow start, the Gators need to have the mindset Edwards and Co. are looking for revenge in Athens, said sophomore shooting guard Noah Locke.
“At this level, nothing’s going to be easy. No matter what the game is, it’s always going to be a tough game for us,” Locke said. “No matter what the record is or whatever you might think, everyone’s going to play their best game against us and we’ve just got to take that approach every game.”

PROJECTED STARTERS
Florida
Keyontae Johnson;F;6-5;231;So.;14.0 ppg;7.1 rpg
Kerry Blackshear Jr.;F;6-10;241;Gr.;13.4 ppg;7.6 rpg
Andrew Nembhard;G;6-5;193;So.;11.4 ppg;5.5 apg
Noah Locke;G;6-3;207;So.;10.3 ppg;2.4 rpg
Scottie Lewis;G;6-5;185;Fr.;8.0 ppg;3.8 rpg
Georgia
Rayshaun Hammonds;F;6-9;225;Jr.;12.7 ppg;7.2 rpg
Toumani Camara;F;6-8;220;RSo.;6.7 ppg;4.4 rpg
Anthony Edwards;G;6-5;225;Fr.;19.8 ppg;5.4 rpg
Jordan Harris;G;6-5;195;Sr.;6.4 ppg;4.0 rpg
Sahvir Wheeler;G;5-10;180;Fr.;8.9ppg;4.4 apg
Notes: Heading into the final week of the regular season, the Gators are tied for fourth in the SEC standings. Florida would be the fifth seed at the SEC Tournament in the current standings, with Mississippi State holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. The Gators have three players who rank in the SEC’s top two in a statistical category (all games): Andrew Nembhard rates first in assist/turnover ratio (2.0) and second in assists (5.5), Keyontae Johnson is second in field goal percentage (.541) and Noah Locke ranks second in 3-point field goal percentage (.435). Locke has knocked down three or more 3-pointers in 8 of 16 SEC games, including three games with 5+.

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