After his freshman teammate unleashed a quintessential breakout performance in the biggest game of the season, point guard Andrew Nembhard was asked if Omar Payne now will be getting more touches in the Florida offense.
“Omar is not really that guy you get the ball to,” Nembhard said. “He’s a guy where the ball just finds him.”
It found him in spades Saturday in what turned into a much-needed and quintessential signature victory for the 2019-20 Gators, who took a cue from Payne’s practically flawless performance — 19 points and 11 rebounds (both career highs) on 9-for-9 shooting from the floor — to demolish fourth-ranked Auburn, 69-47, before a roisterous and rowdy sold-out, blacked-out Exatech Arena/O’Connell Center crowd Saturday afternoon. Graduate-transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. had 11 points and season best-tying 16 rebounds, while sophomore shooting guard Noah Locke chipped in 14 points, including four 3s.
When the final buzzer sounded, Florida (12-5, 4-1) sat a game back in the Southeastern Conference standings and had its first win over an Associated Press Top 5 team since beating second-ranked Michigan State in Atlantic City, N.J., on Nov. 27, 2009, along with the program’s first such win at home since beating No. 3 Ohio State on Dec. 23, 2007.
“I guess this shows what we’re potentially capable of,” UF coach Mike White said. “I don’t think that was Auburn’s best performance, but I don’t want to take anything away from our guys. We’re such a young team that I don’t know how many of those we’ll get.”
For now, they’ll settle for a first.
Payne, the 6-foot-10, 223-pound forward from Kissimmee, Fla., came in averaging 4.3 points and 4.1 rebounds. Over 21 minutes he grabbed seven offensive rebounds, converting all of them into second-chance baskets, and helped his teammates shoot 50 percent for the game, overcome a turnover-plagued first half, manhandle one of the country’s best rebounding teams, 44-29, and ultimately turn this one into a blowout.
Yeah, the ball found him, all right, and his teammates and coaches were awfully glad it did.
“I’ve always played that way,” Payne said when told of Nembhard’s assessment. “I don’t ever worry about getting the ball, so I think I’m gonna stick to that.”
Payne was on his game from the beginning, scoring his team’s first two baskets (one on a stickback, the next on an alley-oop slam off a feed from Nembhard) and assisting on the third, a three-pointer from Locke, thus accounting for the all seven of the game’s initial points to get the Gators in an early rhythm. The Tigers (15-2, 3-2), whose first loss of the season came three nights earlier in an 83-64 massacre at rival Alabama, shot a horrendous 20.7 percent in the first half (just six of 29), but only trailed by five at the break, 28-23, because the Gators gifted their guests 12 turnovers, a handful against full-court pressure, that became a dozen Auburn points.
At times, it was just plain sloppy.
“It was all about about us, mentally, just being more confident in our game,” said Locke, who in nailing four of seven from deep improved to 23-for-45 (51.1 percent) over the last eight games. “Offensively, we were being so stagnant. When we saw somebody against the trap, it didn’t seem like we were trying to get open. We just came out in the second half and showed we could handle it.”
An Auburn basket to start the second half made it a three-point game, but Nembhard answered with a straight-line drive and layup at the other end to commence a run of six straight UF points that took the lead to nine. The Gators were up a dozen inside 10 minutes remaining, 49-37, when Tigers fifth-year senior guard Samir Doughty, scoreless in the first half, bombed back-to-back 3s and made it a six-point game.
But then came an 11-1 home-team blitz, highlighted by a couple second-chance buckets from Payne, the second an old-fashioned three-point opportunity, with Payne — a 35-percent free-throw shooter — even converting from the line. Yeah, it was that kind of night.
“I’ve been working on my free throws,” he said. “I was proud of myself for making that.”
Had he missed it, all would have been forgiven.
“Omar’s been getting better each and every day, each and every practice, so we kind of felt like this was going to happen at some point,” Blackshear said.
The Gators would love to think the same can be said about their team, which has won five of six since returning from holiday break, with the lone black mark being an ugly 91-75 loss a week ago at Missouri. Some very difficult games are on the immediate horizon (Tuesday at LSU, then home next Saturday against No. 2 Baylor in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge), but maybe this was a steppingstone.
“Florida played great defensively and their coach ran some really great stuff. We had a lot of trouble with their ball-screen offense,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, whose team was held 17 points below its previous season low of 64. “They broke us down off the bounce and were able to turn the corners.”
Nembhard, the sophomore playmaker, missed the previous two days of practice with the flu and didn’t rejoin his teammates until early Saturday morning at shoot-around. He went 3-for-7 from the floor, scored six points, grabbed five rebounds, dished five assists (to four turnovers) and had the Gators in a really nice rhythm after halftime. UF, which turned the ball over just three times after halftime (none in the first 10-plus minutes), knocked down 16 of 29 shots from the floor after intermission, including five of eight 3-balls.
Regarding the former, Locke, sophomore forward Keyontae Johnson (8 points, 4 rebounds) and Blackshear bombed in consecutive ones over three possessions inside the final two minutes, rocketing the Gators to a 25-point lead and sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
“The atmosphere was on-point and just electric. What a fun environment to be in,” White said. “Hopefully, we can build on that.”
And, hopefully, the ball continues to find Payne. Preferably, with similar results.