With just a tick more than three minutes remaining in the game, Auburn guard Samir Doughty saw the ball sail to his left, flipped his head around to the corner and slumped his shoulders, resignation and a touch of disgust flashing across his face. In the corner stood Florida Gators guard Noah Locke. He’d come off his man, ran to the spot and taken the assist from Andrew Nembhard. Locke had enough time to asses the quick shot, elect to reset and then put up the rainbow. All the while Doughty watched, four feet off the play, as the Gators took a 63-44 lead. That’s the moment the game was over.
Until that point, Florida had virtually dominated the court. The Gators never trailed in the critical SEC matchup, out rebounded the Tigers in both halves and shot 50% from the field. But before the basket, there was still a fighting shot for the Tigers to find their way back into the game. Bruce Pearl’s squad—4th in the Associated Press ranking—had trailed by only five at the half, having scored 12 points off of 12 Florida turnovers in the first half and going 10-10 from the free throw line during that time as well.
Yet with the Locke basket, the score became insurmountable and the will was broken. It took more than just that shot though to reach the critical moment.
"I'm disappointed with our play," admitted Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl following the 69-47 Florida win. It was Auburn’s second loss of the week after falling on Tuesday to Alabama.
"It's the time of the year when we should be trying to elevate our play, and we're not. Obviously, there's a pretty big price on our head being ranked fourth in the country.”
On Friday afternoon, the Gators were worried they’d be without starting guard Andrew Nembhard. The sophomore tested positive for the flu and did not participate in the day’s practice. Yet on Saturday afternoon, Nembhard was ready for tip-off and dished five assists with six points. The total was considerably less than the two 20+ point performances he had to begin the season but as he told GatorBait Magazine after the game, he was not yet fully recovered. Nembhard played the fewest amount of minutes of his season and Ques Glover helped provide relief at point.
But this game wasn’t about others stepping in to help Nembhard or about Kerry Blackshear’s 11 points and 16 rebounds, picking up his eighth double-double of the season while becoming more and more of a vocal graduate player. It wasn’t about Noah Locke’s four baskets from downtown that provided sparks or Keyontae Johnson’s steady presence that can play every position.
This game was about Omar Payne. It was about his 19 points, his 11 rebounds, his emergence as a threat across 94 feet and what the Florida Gators can be with him producing.
“Every day with him, he just continues to improve,” bragged head coach Mike White.
“He hasn’t had a bad practice in a long, long time. That’s pretty rare for a freshman, where you at least lack energy, you don’t feel good, you don’t handle coaching in the right way or a teammate gets on you, maybe an older guy—he just brings it. He works and he’s always asking questions. He’s just had a really serious approach. Obviously he’s really talented.
“I think his toughness, more mental than physical, has improved a lot and he stepped up big. He’s got big soft hands, elite length of course, is hard to block out and a little bit later on in his career—whether that means a month from now or next year, whenever—i think you guys will see more and more, creating and scoring on his own. He’s getting closer to that with his jump hooks, face on the driver a little bit, really good player.”
Compared to freshman signees like Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann, Payne was—to put it nicely—a roster filler. But while the phenom’s regain confidence and find their footing in college, Payne has taken the opportunity to make his own mark. Against one of the nation’s best rebounding teams—Auburn was averaging 42 a game before Saturday and is still 13th in NCAA—Payne stayed on the glass and terrorized the Tigers.
Noted Nembhard, “for the last month or two, he’s been playing really hard. When he plays hard, he’s gonna effect the game in so many ways. Like on the glass, he was huge tonight.”
Of Payne’s 11 rebounds, he had seven on offense, accounting for 70% of UF’s rebounds on offense. Six of those led to putbacks, accounting for 12 of his 19 total points. While Blackshear spent more time on the perimeter to draw the defense, Payne handled business beneath the net and gave Mike White the performance on the glass that the coach had asked his team for during the week.
“When he said it, I feel like said I think they’re [were] like 7th in the country in offensive rebounds so we knew we had to rebound down,” said Payne.
“I feel like that’s my role too on this team, to rebound.”
Added Locke of Payne, "he’s a big guy. Offensive rebounder, just rebound, block shots, I mean he gets his shots off but drive to the basket, dump it off to him I mean we were, we got a lot of offensive rebounds and he was helping.”
The Gators had 44 rebounds total—34 defensive, 10 offensive—and picked up 19 second chance points. A lot of that had to do with Omar Payne. And as such, the Florida Gators locked in another piece of the puzzle that has been this season. They sit at 12-5, 4-1 and knocked off their first Top 5 team since defeating Ohio State…in 2006. White’s squad limited Auburn to their lowest score output in 131 games, and 33.9 points lower than their season average.
There will be a narrative that it was simply a night Florida’s shots fell and Auburn’s didn’t (50%-25%). Yet both of those things were true due to the play of Payne inside, the in-game evolving plan that sent other bigs to the perimeter and the corner shots that were opened up with the Tigers putting second half attention on stymieing the vacuum under the basket.
This is the state of the SEC said both Pearl and White. Any team can beat any team on any given day. The LSU Tigers are the only team still undefeated in league play. That’s who Florida will face next. They’ll do so with a roster that is beginning to build off of each other and break an opponent’s will.