Down three starters, Florida stuns No. 6 Tennessee

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guard Tyree Appleby takes the ball to the basket for a score past Tennessee guard Josiah-Jordan James during Tuesday's game at Exactech Arena.

Facing the highest-ranked opponent on their 2020-21 schedule thus far, the Gators received more bad news prior to tip-off when it was announced starting center Colin Castleton, the team’s most impressive player in conference play, wouldn’t be available due to the ankle injury he suffered Saturday in Starkville, Mississippi, in UF’s prior contest. 

Despite being as short-handed as they’ve been all year, the Gators available for Tuesday’s contest with No. 6-ranked Tennessee didn’t get the message they were supposed to go quietly. 

Florida jumped out to a 38-27 lead at halftime and never looked back, eventually securing a 75-49 defeat of the Volunteers at Exactech Arena. 

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“That’s the most productive our pressure’s been without fouling this year,” UF coach Mike White said, “and offensively I thought we played with a lot of confidence.

“This wasn’t Tennessee’s best night, I know that, they’re one of the best teams in the country. But our guys were ready.”

The victory marked White’s fifth against a top-10 opponent in his UF coaching career, and the fourth with a margin of 17 points or more. 

In his first start of the season, the 6-foot-10 sophomore Omar Payne had nine points, nine rebounds and five blocks in 27 minutes in relief of Castleton. 

Florida guard Noah Locke goes to the basket to score Tuesday against Tennessee at Exactech Arena.

With sophomore Scottie Lewis out for the third consecutive game due to “health and safety protocol”, Noah Locke again earned the start in Lewis’ place and scored a team-high 14 points in 35 minutes.

Payne wasn’t the only UF frontcourt option either on the night, as Jason Jitoboh played a season-high 13 minutes, while junior Osayi Osifo tallied four points and six rebounds. 

The Gators were active on the boards all night after getting out-rebounded their last time out against Mississippi State, as UF hauled in eight more boards than the Volunteers. 

“As much as we struggled on the glass last game and on the interior defensively, and then with Colin out, we thought for a few reasons that we were a little bit more open to playing big tonight,” White said, “and we did that.”

Florida’s lead grew to 20 with 14:15 remaining on Locke’s successful free throw, although the Vols would cut Florida’s advantage to 55-44 with 9:56 to play, but the Gators would go on a 11-0 run over the next 3:16 to keep UF comfortably in front.

With the victory secured, UF had an opportunity to substitute in walk-ons Alex Klatsky and Jack May with more than a minute left in regulation.

Florida will be back in action on the road in Athens, Georgia, when UF takes on UGA Saturday at 2 p.m. 

What We Learned

Omar Payne walked into Florida’s locker room prior to tip-off to a surprising revelation. 

The sophomore from Kissimmee would get the start against the Vols with Castleton out, essentially ensuring he’d see the floor more than he had all season. 

No notice, no problem, as it would turn out. 

Payne’s defense in the first half helped the Gators jump out to an early double-digit lead, and he registered all five of his offensive rebounds in the opening 20 minutes of action, ultimately resulting in a victory on the glass for the SEC’s worst rebounding team. 

After White said Monday that his underclassman in the frontcourt wasn’t playing to his talent-level, Payne concurred with that assessment, pointing to Tuesday’s performance as evidence. 

“I was just trying to play to my advantages, and on the offensive glass I just had to go get it,” Payne said after the game. “I’m capable of doing it, so I should be doing it every game.”

After his head coach asserted he needed to regain his confidence, Payne showed no inkling of insecurity on the court against Tennessee — if anything, he was the one doing the demoralizing. With the Gators up just five late in the first half, Tyree Appleby drove the lane and lobbed it to Payne, who swiftly and decisively threw down a one-handed dunk to extend Florida’s advantage. 

Perhaps indicating his maturity, Payne couldn’t even revel in his highlight-reel finish post-game. If he keeps playing the way he played against the Vols, Payne should have plenty more opportunities to enjoy his accomplishments. 

“I need to start going to two hands,” Payne said. “It looked pretty, but sometimes it will go off your hand.”

Rest of bench steps up, too

And Payne wasn’t the only Gator in the frontcourt who capitalized on the opportunity to step up against a top-ranked opponent. 

Florida’s starting forward, Anthony Duruji, played less than 20 minutes once again, but it wasn’t due to a lack of effectiveness or foul trouble. Osifo converted both field-goal attempts in his 12 minutes, and Jitoboh finished with a plus-10 plus/minus in his time on the floor — two encouraging signs for a team in need of frontcourt depth following the loss of star Keyontae Johnson and the temporary absences of Castleton and Scottie Lewis. 

White said the plan initially was to play the reserves before the game unfolded favorably in Florida’s direction, resulting in a larger role for the reserves.

“I told them all year, ‘hey, be ready’. Tonight I made a point to look them in the eyes in the pre-game talk and said be ready,” White said. “Did I know they’d play this many minutes? No, but when you’re productive you gain trust from the staff and your teammates.”

Appleby reaches millennium mark

Tyree Appleby entered the season just 101 points away from 1,000 in his collegiate career, and he eclipsed the mark in the first half on his second make of the night before finishing the game with 13 points on 5-for-9 shooting.

Appleby led UF on Saturday in the loss at Mississippi State with 20 points, putting him within reach of the mark heading into Tuesday’s contest. 

Since being inserted into the starting line-up two weeks ago against Alabama, Appleby is averaging 12 points a game for the Gators.

Although he had to wait more than a year to reach the mark after transferring from Cleveland State following the 2018-19 season, Appleby likely couldn’t have picked a better night to accomplish said feat. 

“We did a lot of things pretty well,” White said. “I thought our guards were really good playing in space.”

Florida 75, No. 6 Tennessee 49

TENNESSEE (10-2, 4-2 SEC)

Fulkerson 6-9 3-3 15, James 2-8 0-0 5, Keo.Johnson 3-10 2-7 8, Vescovi 2-8 2-2 7, Pons 2-7 0-0 5, Bailey 1-12 2-6 4, Anosike 1-2 0-0 2, Gaines 0-0 3-4 3, Nkamhoua 0-2 0-2 0, Plavsic 0-0 0-1 0, Pember 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-58 12-25 49.

FLORIDA (7-4, 4-3)

Duruji 2-4 0-0 5, Payne 4-5 1-2 9, Appleby 5-9 1-2 13, Locke 5-13 2-3 14, Mann 6-11 0-0 12, Lane 2-6 2-2 6, Glover 4-7 1-2 10, Jitoboh 1-3 0-0 2, Osifo 2-2 0-0 4, Ruzhentsev 0-1 0-0 0, Klatsky 0-1 0-0 0, May 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-62 7-11 75.

Halftime_Florida 38-27. 3-Point Goals_Tennessee 3-18 (Pons 1-2, James 1-3, Vescovi 1-6, Keo.Johnson 0-1, Bailey 0-6), Florida 6-18 (Appleby 2-4, Locke 2-6, Duruji 1-2, Glover 1-2, Klatsky 0-1, Ruzhentsev 0-1, Lane 0-2). Rebounds_Tennessee 34 (James, Gaines 5), Florida 35 (Payne 8). Assists_Tennessee 12 (Fulkerson 4), Florida 15 (Appleby 7). Total Fouls_Tennessee 14, Florida 22.

Florida forward Omar Payne throws down a one-handed dunk Tuesday against Tennessee at Exactech Arena.