The Florida Gators under Coach Mike White certainly have had bigger wins over his six seasons, but none more improbable than what unfolded Tuesday night against sixth-ranked Tennessee at Exactech Arena/O’Connell Center.
Not even close.
UF has been without star forward and preseason Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson for six weeks since his collapse at Florida State and minus guard Scottie Lewis, the team’s best defender, the last two games due to health and safety protocols. When the Gators arrived at the O’Dome on Tuesday they learned 6-foot-11 forward Colin Castleton, averaging a team-high 16.7 points in league play, would not play due to an ankle injury suffered three nights earlier late in a loss at Mississippi State. So they would basically be facing the nation’s No. 2-rated defense without their three best players.
About four hours later, after obliterating the Volunteers 75-49, the Gators had equaled the most lopsided victory over an Associated Press Top 10 team in program history.
“Who saw that coming?” White asked afterward. “I didn’t. I’ll be the first to tell you.”
No one else did, either.
Junior shooting guard Noah Locke led the way with 14 points and fourth-year junior backcourt mate Tyree Appleby, the Cleveland State transfer, had 13 points, four rebounds, seven assists, three steals and passed 1,000 points for his career to pace a quartet of teammates into double-figure scoring. But this night wasn’t about any one Florida player. On the contrary. This was about a game that every guy on the UF bench was called upon; in some cases to play minutes the likes of which they’d never seen.
Basically, White told all 10 of his available scholarship players to be ready.
“Honestly, I think just everybody came to play,” Locke said. “We knew it was a big game — every game is a big game — but coming out knowing everybody had to step up, that we had guys down, I just think everybody was focused to play.”
On both ends. The Gators (7-4, 4-3) shot 49.2 percent against the Vols (10-2, 4-2) and their vaunted defense that came to town allowing just 57.2 points per game and 38.5-percent shooting from the floor. In fact, it was the Florida defense that stole the show, doing a bizarro switch from what it put on tape in the loss at Mississippi State, which shot 48 percent, out-rebounded the Gators 47-26 and out-pointed them in the paint 52-30.
This time it was UF with the lopsided edge inside; 44-36 on the glass, 42-22 in the paint; again, without Castleton. He was replaced in the first unit by 6-10 sophomore Omar Payne, who responded with nine points on 4-for-5 from the floor, nine rebounds (five on the offensive end) and five blocked shots in a season-high 27 minutes.
The Florida defense smothered Tennessee into just 29-percent shooting overall, 3-for-18 from deep (16.7 percent) and forced 18 turnovers converted to 27 points.
“Next man up,” White said. “It’s a challenge, really. ‘All you guys want more minutes, well you’re probably going to get more tonight. What are you going to do with it?’ Just like that. That was the challenge. No one shied away from it. Everybody accepted it.”
From the start. Tennessee, already with three SEC wins (out of four) by double digits, led once during the game. The Vols scored the game’s first basket, then played from behind for the last 38-plus minutes.
The Gators came out surprisingly poised against a defense — and team — that had pretty much had its way against them in recent seasons. The Vols had won five of the six meetings under Coach Rick Barnes.
UF led 18-14 with nine minutes left in the first half when Locke knocked down the team’s first 3-pointer and started a run of seven straight points that took the lead to 11That was the margin at halftime, with the home team up 38-27, but along the way White had called on reserves Ques Glover, Neils Lane, and Osayi Osifo — each with DNPs during the SEC season — for significant minutes. When they were on the floor, the Gators maintained their margin because the backups brought the same intensity, energy and focus. No one tried to do too much.
“We just wanted to go out and have fun,” Payne said. “Let’s go. Let’s get it.”
Tennessee scored the first two baskets of the second half to draw within seven, but Florida took off on a 15-2 run key by 3-pointers from Appleby and Glover (10 points), the Knoxville, Tenn., native, that were bracketed around an old-time three-point play by Locke. Just like that, the Gators were up by 20, at 53-33, with just over 14 minutes left.
And when the Vols chopped it to 11 with 10 minutes remaining, the Gators, feeding off their press, zipped off 13 points in a row, starting with a trio of steals that led to points, including a dagger 3-ball by forward Anthony Duruji in transition. The lead was 24 with six minutes after a couple steals and layups from Tre Mann (12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists) and Appleby, who had one of his best all-around floor games over 28 minutes.
“We got exactly what we deserved. We knew they would come out with a lot of emotion. We knew they were going to play hard,” said Barnes, who in turn pointed a finger at his players for not playing hard and even promised to make lineup changes. “I don’t want to take anything away from Florida and Mike White because they’ve had a hard year with a lot of different things going on. They deserved to win the game from start to finish.”
When it was over, Florida had equaled the 26-point wipeout of No. 3 Ohio State on Dec. 23, 2006, which stood as the largest UF margin over a top-10 opponent since the AP began ranking teams in the 1948-49 season. That Gators team that pummeled the Buckeyes, of course, went on to win a second straight national championship.
No, that last sentence was not intended as any comparison. But what this Florida team Tuesday night — how it prepared, how it executed, how it shared and came together, the effort it collectively expended — should serve as a standard for the balance of the season. Given the across-the-board contributions from each player, why wouldn’t it?
“It’ll give us a little bit of confidence, but we can’t let it boost our heads,” Payne said. “We have to play the same way every game.”
“We did a lot og things pretty well, and this wasn’t Tennessee’s best night, I know that,” White said. “But our guys were ready. No one’s been through more, and I’m really proud of them.”