Florida guard Noah Locke (10) works around Tennessee guard Santiago Vescovi (25) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 19. 2021, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Matt Stamey)

Gators Climbing Their Way Through the SEC

Slowly, the Florida Gators Men’s Basketball team is finding its footing. But, there is nothing slow about their style of play these days. Even without SEC player of the year Keyontae Johnson, the Gators have picked up the pieces and hooking them together. After a bit of an uneasy stretch against Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi State, the Gators stunned conference leader and No. 6 Tennessee mid-week and kept the ball rolling against the ‘Dawgs.

“We’ve changed the whole dynamics [on offense] since I’ve been here, and now this year we started playing much faster,” junior shooting guard Noah Locke said. “We’ve switched some things [lately], but that seems like the best way for us.”

In the 92-84 win in Athens, the Gators created consistency in a season that has been anything but. Florida put together their best shooting performance of the season, record-high points thus far and five Gators in double figures. Sophomore guard Tre Mann led the charge with a career-high of 24 points and contributed to the Gators’ domination early in the second half going a 16-3 run to bust out of the gate.

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Noah Locke was in on the action as well, putting up four threes, 16 total points. Plus, Florida gained forward Colin Castleton following an ankle injury back against Georgia. He was able to make a quick impact on the floor, giving the Gators 14 points and seven of those coming at the free-throw line. Florida is still missing guard Scottie Lewis who has been out for four straight games.

Maybe the brightest spot of the game came from the “5” spot where sophomore Omar Payne got the look for his second straight game and perhaps made the biggest impact. Payne notched 10 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots during his 25 minutes on the floor. Rounding out the quintet was guard Tyree Appleby who recorded 14 points, three rebounds and three assists.

Florida’s shooting performance was electric. But, even more, encouraging for Head Coach Mike White was his team’s consistency at the free-throw line. Florida shot almost 65% from the line, an area where this team has struggled so far this season.

” Some stuff we should clean up,” White said.  “You shoot the percentage we shot on the road, getting to the foul line, 16 offensive rebounds, thought our guys did a really good job offensively.”

Georgia didn’t go down without a fight. Even with a 16 point lead with a little over six minutes remaining, the Bulldogs began chipping away at the lead. Florida’s defense could not find a stop. They were simply fending off the ‘Dawgs, crossing their fingers their most impressive offensive performance to date would hold. Indeed it did as the Gators put up the most points in regulation in Athens since 1994.

The win for the Gators poured into the foundation for consistency and encouragement moving forward. The next opponent to test the stability of the unit comes from Vanderbilt on Wednesday. In late December, Florida toppled the Commodores to open conference play in a convincing 91-72 victory in Nashville. Since then, Vanderbilt has been faced with more adversity due to a combination of positive tests, contact tracing and subsequent quarantining of individuals within the Vanderbilt basketball program. The Commodores have had to postpone three games and have yet to pick up an SEC win thus far.

Tipoff for Wednesday’s matchup at Exatech Arena is set for 6:30 p.m.

About Ellory Fuqua

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