For 36 minutes Saturday, Florida freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard appeared to have come crashing down to Earth.
Nembhard, who less than a week prior had been named the SEC’s Freshman of the Week, had mustered just two points in the first half as the Gators struggled to keep up with Michigan State.
But late in the decisive second half, Nembhard seemingly took another step forward.
Nembhard scored on four of Florida’s final seven shots and assisted on two others as the Gators clawed back to make it a one-possession game down the stretch.
Poised for a drop-off against a top-10 opponent, Nembhard emerged as a potential late-game option down the stretch for the Gators, finishing with a team-high tying 13 points and three assists.
Despite the presence of three experienced senior scorers on Florida’s roster, head coach Mike White contemplated after the game whether Nembhard — who leads the team in minutes per game — should be pushed further considering his progress to date.
“Maybe we need to challenge him more, I’m not sure. He’s been terrific. I know he’s playing really well,” White said of Nembhard after the 63-59 loss at the O’Connell Center. “He was really good today, very accountable. If he was supposed to sprint out of a trap, he sprinted out of a trap. If he’s supposed to be in the gap, he’s in the gap. He just is.”
The soft-spoken Nembhard broke down Florida’s issues in the first half — a further display of his advanced knowledge of the game — as well, saying the guards need to come out of the tunnel with an edge rather than turning it on late in the game.
Kevaughn Allen — who had a solid performance matching Nembhard with 13 points, albeit on 33.3 percent shooting — and Jalen Hudson may have the experience, but it’s becoming evident Nembhard has the coveted ability of igniting his teammates.
“Me and all the other guards just need to be more aggressive and stop playing tense and scared,” Nembhard said. “In the first half, we weren’t being as aggressive as we should have been. For sure.”
Three of Florida’s four losses this season have been decided by seven points or less, meaning a few free throws here — coming into Saturday, the Gators were ranked No. 303 in free-throw percentage in NCAA Division I at 63.9 percent — or recovering a loose ball there would have made the difference.
An optimistic assessment is that Florida is aware of what needs improvement — it’s finding out just how to improve collectively what has held a talent-laden roster back in 2018.
“It’s tough, obviously, to take the loss. But we can see some stuff that we need to work on,” Nembhard said. “I feel like we can stay with anybody in the country right now. I think we have a lot of stuff to improve on. We could have definitely got that win.”