If Saturday’s performance was any indication, the Florida men’s basketball team couldn’t wait to return to the O’Connell Center.
Playing its first game in 29 days in Exactech Arena, Florida jumped out to a 14-0 lead before ultimately downing Long Beach State University, 102-63, in the team’s final contest before commencing SEC play.
“We definitely got better today, and played with confidence,” Gators coach Mike White said. “And hopefully a couple of these young guys can grow from this.”
UF (8-4) got 21 points apiece from graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. and sophomore forward Keyontae Johnson, while sophomore shooting guard Noah Locke recorded his first career double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, and the Gators connected on 12-of-30 3-point attempts in a return to form of sorts on the offensive end.
In turn, the win marked Florida’s first 100-plus scoring performance since downing Gonzaga 111-105 on Nov. 24, 2017 in double overtime — a credit to the team’s sound ball movement for much of the afternoon.
Sophomore point guard Andrew Nembhard, the lone Gator to enter Saturday’s game having recorded more assists than turnovers, continued his pin-point passing of late by dishing a career-high 13 assists to just a lone turnover in 29 minutes of play.
“I think it was 10 to zero (turnovers) at halftime, if I’m not mistaken,” White said of Nembhard’s performance. “Just making really good decisions. I mean, he was on it with his pitch-aheads, his drive-and-kick game, and also his reading of ball screens. He was really sharp. And obviously it helps when you hit shots.”
Clutching a sizable advantage for much of the afternoon — the Gators took a commanding 59-31 lead over the Beach (4-11) into the halftime break — White capitalized on an opportunity to give freshmen guards Ques Glover and Tre Mann additional minutes.
The former would finish with 11 points on 5-for-11 shooting, while the latter finished with 10 points while showing flashes of greatness interlaced with a team-high three turnovers.
“They played well. We moved the ball a lot, they got a lot of open looks,” Locke said of Glover and Mann. “It’s just about them staying confident that they can make their shots and locking in on defense, not making a lot of mistakes.”
With Scottie Lewis sidelined with a concussion sustained in practice earlier in the week, fellow freshman Omar Payne made the most of his first collegiate start.
The 6-foot-10 power forward from Kissimmee recorded 11 points and pulled down nine rebounds, including six on the offensive end, while starting in place of Lewis, giving the Gators an opportunity to experiment with a larger-than-usual starting rotation.
“He was as good as anyone on our team, period. In any class, since Christmas. In back-to-back practices, he had a rejuvenated spirit, was all over the court, was blocking shots, was impossible to block out, sprinting up and down the court,” White said of Payne. “I don’t know what he ate when he was home, but he ate the right stuff, spent time with the right people, because he came back a different guy. And sometimes that happens with freshmen. So it was a simple decision who to start, everyone on the staff agreed.”
Having concluded the daunting non-conference portion of the schedule, the Gators turn their focus to league play, where a match-up back at home with Alabama (6-5) awaits. Considering Payne’s performance as a starter, the Gators, still searching for offensive consistency, may be set to alter their line-up just prior to a decisive stretch.
“We’re working towards overall offensive identity. Pretty good today, (but) they’re not in our league,” White said. “We’ve got to get better and better. But getting better, for sure. We took a step.”
UF 102, Long Beach State 63
LONG BEACH ST. (4-11)
Hunter 8-18 1-3 20, Slater 4-13 2-2 10, Mansel 2-5 3-5 7, Carter 1-8 7-9 10, Morgan 3-4 0-0 6, De Geest 1-4 0-0 3, Roberts 1-3 0-0 2, Griffin 1-3 0-0 3, Irish 0-0 0-0 0, Jackson 1-1 0-0 2, Yan 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-59 13-19 63.
Nembhard 2-6 0-0 5, Locke 6-15 0-0 16, Johnson 8-12 3-5 21, Blackshear 5-7 8-8 21, Glover 5-11 0-3 11, Mann 4-9 1-2 10, Payne 5-6 1-3 11, Bassett 1-1 0-0 2, Jitoboh 1-3 3-6 5, Gak 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 37-70 16-29 102.
Halftime_Florida 59-31. 3-Point Goals_Long Beach St. 6-17 (Hunter 3-6, Carter 1-2, Griffin 1-3, De Geest 1-4, Slater 0-2), Florida 12-30 (Locke 4-9, Blackshear 3-5, Johnson 2-4, Nembhard 1-2, Glover 1-4, Mann 1-6). Rebounds_Long Beach St. 29 (Morgan 7), Florida 45 (Locke 10). Assists_Long Beach St. 6 (Slater 3), Florida 19 (Nembhard 13). Total Fouls_Long Beach St. 23, Florida 20.