It was hard not to be star struck as the Florida Gators tipped off against the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday night. With halftime set aside to honor former coach Billy Donovan, court side was lined with former Gators—some who had gone on to NBA fame, some still playing in the league and tons who had etched their name in Florida lore. They drew attention naturally which may be why Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Dylan Disu had to re-do the tipoff. No one was paying attention the first time.
But for as much attention as was deservedly focused on Donovan and his guys, there was still a game to play. As the NCAA Tournament creeps closer and closer, Florida—sitting at 15-9 coming into the night—needs every win to help their hopes of making the dance…and for a decent seed at that. The Gators got a step closer on Saturday, moving to 16-9, 8-4 with their 84-66 win over the Dores (9-16, 1-11).
The offense was hard to find in the first 10 minutes. During that time frame, there were six turnovers and 28 points scored…collectively. The only real highlights were courtesy of Joakim Noah and Al Horford (both 2004-2007) getting into the fan spirit and letting an official hear the taunts after a questionable foul called on point guard Andrew Nembhard.
With just over seven minutes to play in the half, Noah Locke hit a three—one of six on the night as he had a team high 19 points. Locke’s three point performance gave him a long ball in 23 straight games, tied for 8th longest streak in program history. He tied Dorian Finney-Smith, who got to watch the feat in person, on All-Star break from the Dallas Mavericks to be there for Donovan’s celebration. Down the row from Finney-Smith sat Michael Frazier. He’s who Locke is chasing as Frazier still owns the school record at 41 games.
Locke’s shot sent the Gators on a 23-8 run to end the half up by 29, including a three-pointer from Gainesville native and freshman guard Tre Mann with eight seconds left that gave him a surreal moment with a hero. The shot fell and Mann turned to the bench and blew a kiss towards Brad Beal (2011-2012).
“It was just kinda cool. Bradley Beal one of my favorite players. I saw him right there before the game and so the shot happened to go in right there, so I knew they were behind me so just did something to show him a little love.”
It was in that first half stretch that the Gators played what White called their most “mature” game of the year.
The lead proved substantial enough to hold against a Vanderbilt second half surge. Following a win earlier in the week against Texas A&M, the Gators have back-to-back performances that didn’t require strictly on luck or late shots but instead built a lead thanks to efficient sets and extra passes and didn’t crumble when the opponent made any attempt at a run. The Dores went 8-13 from beyond the arc with all eight of the makes coming in the second half. Florida answered, forcing eight turnovers in the final 20 minutes (19 total) and knocking down eight blocks. Capitalizing largely off the transition, the Gators shot 52% in both halves.
“We tried to continue it from last game and we were stretching it a lot in practice this week and we came out, moved it well again tonight and we were hitting shots. Hopefully we can continue next game, just keep it going,” said Mann.
The Dores were playing without their head coach. Jerry Stackhouse was ejected with four seconds remaining in the first 20 minutes after arguing a collision that left Matthew Moyer with a shoulder injury.
Andrew Nembhard played 19 minutes, the second fewest of his career (16 versus Vanderbilt on February 13, 2019), a decision White said stemmed from his four personal fouls but also the Gators upcoming schedule and NCAA Tournament. Ques Glover played 22 minutes and scored eight in his place, while dishing three assists. Forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. is the cog though and the offense has begun to rotate more around his presence. On Friday, guard Scottie Lewis told reporters “if KJ can touch the ball every possession, the plus-minus of this team is going to be ridiculous.”
Blackshear’s plus-minus was 16 (Lewis had a team high 28) and it was his passing ability—especially in Nembhard’s absence—that facilitated the productive offense thanks to his team high five assists as White explains.
“When both Omar [Payne] and Keyontae [Johnson] are playing well it allows KJ to do a lot different things for us and obviously take pressure off of [Payne] and they benefit from him as well. For a 6’9”, 6’10” guy, he’s such a good passer and he’s such a willing passer…five assists, one turnover. He took six shots, he could’ve squeezed off 10 of them easily but he’s very unselfish and he really sees the floor well.”
With the game firmly in hand, White put in new bodies around the two minute mark. The first was Dontay Bassett who hasn’t played since recording three minutes versus Auburn on January 18 and suffered a lower leg injury. His practice with the team on Friday was his first practice in 27 days according to White. As such the plan was to not play him on Saturday as he reacclimated. Once the game plan became to run out the clock though, White walked to the end of the bench and asked Bassett if he wanted to go. The forward only played two minutes but it was enough to get his toes back in the water.
The second late substitution was Chris Sutherland, the former manager promoted to the roster. With the Rowdy Reptiles student section chanting his name, the coach yelled down the bench “Chris” and in checked the grad student guard. He took the rebound off a Tre Mann block and attempted a coast-to-coast basket that brought the legion of former players and remaining fans to their feet. The layup didn’t fall but a free throw on the ensuing possession was met with the requisite raucous reaction.
“It’s nice to see Chris Sutherland, what a great story, for him to come in and breakthrough in the scoring column,” bragged White.
Florida will face a quick turnaround and welcome Arkansas to town on Tuesday. The Razorbacks are 16-9, 4-8. Tip-off is at 7pm on ESPNU.