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Florida wins home-and-home against Vanderbilt

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guard Anthony Duruji shoots a 3 over Vanderbilt defender Jordan Wright during Wednesday's game at Exactech Arena.

Florida’s 15-point lead with less than five minutes to play ended up being just enough as the Gators withstood a late Vanderbilt rally in securing a 78-71 victory on Wednesday night at Exactech Arena. 

In his first game in 18 days after being away from the Florida men’s basketball program due to “health and safety protocol”, sophomore wing Scottie Lewis scored 10 points, with eight of them coming in the first half as Florida built an early lead that eventually grew to 22 in the second half, yet the result ended up being far closer thanks to a late 9-0 run by the Commodores. 

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What: SEC/Big 12 Challenge

Who: Florida at No. 11 West Virginia

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Gainesville native and former five-star prospect Tre Mann scored 15, including six of Florida’s first nine points, in his return to the court after scoring a career-high 24 points Saturday in Florida’s 92-84 win at Georgia. 

Mann also provided four rebounds and a pair of assists despite playing just three minutes in the first half after picking up two early fouls. 

Florida came out firing in the first half, hitting seven of their first 11 attempts from 3-point range, but the 'Dores, still in search of their first conference win, wouldn’t go away. Thanks to Scotty Pippen Jr., who scored 18 of his game-high 32 points in the first half, Vanderbilt trailed just 37-29 heading into the midpoint. 

Thanks to some stifling defense — UF scored 23 points off of turnovers by Vandy — Florida’s lead reached 20 with more than 12 minutes remaining on junior Colin Castleton’s baseline jumper. Castleton finished with 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting, while Omar Payne, who started alongside Castleton in the low post, was held scoreless as he dealt with foul trouble. 

WIth Payne limited to 21 minutes, Osayi Osifo, who coach Mike White said had his strongest performance in Florida’s win at UGA, provided four points in 11 minutes of action. 

The Commodores shot just 43.1 percent from the floor to UF’s 51.9 percent yet Vandy hit six of their final eight field goal attempts. UF didn’t score a field goal for the final 3:21 of play.

The Gators have a brief break in SEC action when they travel to Morgantown, West Virginia, to take on the No. 11-ranked Mountaineers in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge at WVU Coliseum at 2 p.m. Saturday. 

What We Learned

Lewis came out firing in the first half, scoring six of Florida’s first 15 points of the night and tallying a season-high four steals in coming off the bench.

Perhaps it was an attempt to make up for lost time, or maybe Lewis wanted to assert his place in a Florida offense that was in the process of both changing and progressing. 

Either way, Lewis admitted he was cognizant of the fact that his return to the team after a nearly three-week quarantine could potentially be detrimental rather than beneficial. 

“I think they’ve won a lot since I’ve been out. I think my biggest worry, I was scared to come back because of how well they were playing,” Lewis revealed. “I wanted to make sure that we were actually adding, and not subtracting. So I just tried to make sure I was solid. My health is good, my wind is great. It was a mental break, a physical break. Obviously I had a little cold, but I was trying to stay on top of it. My teammates were keeping me in the loop, so I never felt like I was away from my team. Happy to be back.”

After scoring 10 points in the first half, Lewis cooled down in a scoreless second half, although there were plenty of chances available. With Florida’s lead trimmed to just five, Lewis missed a pair of free throws with 30 seconds left, keeping the game within reach for the ‘Dores. 

In similar fashion, Lewis was self-critical of his role at the end of the game.

“Just that entire last eight minutes, we’ve got to do better. It looked like the basket was just wide for them,” Lewis said, “and they were just scoring, and scoring, and scoring, and as a primary defender, that hurts. So I felt like I could have done more. I’m trying to figure that out. I’m not, if not the best, one of the best free-throw shooters on the team, and down the stretch my teammates count on me to make those, so I got to hit those free throws.”

Florida’s towering twosome 

Gainesville has seen more than its fair share of small-ball as of late, so Wednesday’s starting line-up literally stood out. 

Omar Payne made his third start of the season at center for the Gators, while Anthony Duruji came off the bench in favor of Colin Castleton, and each player registered 21 minutes. 

Although the Gators came away with what mattered most — the victory — they were out-rebounded and out-scored in the post by Vanderbilt. 

Castleton was effective once again, hitting six of his eight field goal attempts in his time on the floor, but Payne picked up four fouls and missed his lone shot.  

There was a bright spot in the box score for Payne, however, as he led the team in plus/minus with plus-17. 

White added a statistic that won’t show up in the box score — Payne’s defensive pressure — also stood out, which initially was a point of hesitation when it came to starting two players down low taller than 6-foot-10. 

“I thought he was pretty good on the perimeter defensively. The biggest fear of starting these two guys together, especially against a team that potentially could start (Dylan) Disu at the five, we didn’t know how they’d start, we just went ahead and decided ‘You know what, maybe we can get Anthony going off the bench, just change it up, get him a different look. Omar’s been really good lately, let’s get Colin back in the starting line-up, he’s been one of our best players, of course’,” White said. “And I thought Omar defended on the perimeter well. I’m sure when I watch it closely tonight, there will be three or four things we can show him, but neither of those guys hurt us.”

Instead, White was disappointed in Florida losing the battle on the glass despite the size advantage. 

“Unfortunately again, the big surprise is the lack of offensive rebounding production, especially when you start those two guys,” he said. “Some of it had to do with foul trouble. I think a lot of it had to do also with Vanderbilt just punching us from the tip, the physicality they brought.”

Offensive retooling hard to assess so far

After revealing the team’s planned offensive changes Tuesday, Florida coach Mike White was clear when saying he expected Vanderbilt’s “unique” defense would at times alter UF’s offensive game plan, potentially making it difficult for the Gators to run their offense. 

While making sure to point out that Florida was better offensively than it had been in weeks, White also noted it was likely a suboptimal time to assess the implementations. 

His prediction came to fruition Wednesday, meaning Florida’s coaching staff must wait a little longer to be more screen-heavy in the halfcourt. 

“They just make you do things that, it’ll be the only time you see that type of defensive attack in the whole conference season,” White said. “All these teams can be a little bit unique, but for the most part there are some similarities. But with these guys, it’s very unique. And not only their system and defensive schemes, but their preparation in terms of who they attack, with what type of defensive coverage. They kept us on our heels.”

Florida 78, Vanderbilt 71

VANDERBILT (4-8, 0-6 SEC)

Disu 6-11 5-6 18, Obinna 1-1 2-2 4, Pippen 12-21 4-6 32, Thomas 0-2 0-0 0, Wright 3-8 0-0 7, Evans 2-6 0-2 6, Harvey 1-5 0-0 2, Stute 0-3 2-2 2, Brown 0-1 0-0 0, Odusipe 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-58 13-18 71.

FLORIDA (9-4, 6-3)

Castleton 6-8 1-2 13, Payne 0-1 0-0 0, Appleby 3-6 4-4 12, Locke 4-12 1-2 12, Mann 4-10 4-4 15, Lewis 5-8 0-2 10, Osifo 2-2 0-0 4, Glover 0-1 2-2 2, Duruji 2-3 0-0 5, Ruzhentsev 2-3 0-0 5, Jitoboh 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-54 12-16 78.

Halftime_Florida 37-29. 3-Point Goals_Vanderbilt 8-22 (Pippen 4-7, Evans 2-4, Disu 1-1, Wright 1-2, Brown 0-1, Harvey 0-2, Thomas 0-2, Stute 0-3), Florida 10-23 (Mann 3-5, Locke 3-7, Appleby 2-5, Duruji 1-2, Ruzhentsev 1-2, Lewis 0-2). Fouled Out_Thomas. Rebounds_Vanderbilt 30 (Disu 9), Florida 27 (Castleton, Locke, Mann 5). Assists_Vanderbilt 11 (Pippen 6), Florida 16 (Appleby 6). Total Fouls_Vanderbilt 17, Florida 22.

Florida sophomore guard Scottie Lewis (23) defends Vanderbilt guard Scotty Pippen Jr. (2) during Wednesday's game at Exactech Arena.  Lewis was cleared to play against Vanderbilt after missing the last four games due to health and safety protocols.