Photo by Matthew Maxey / Getty Images

The Florida Gators played its first game without star Keyontae Johnson against Vanderbilt Wednesday. The team won its SEC opener handily by a score of 91-72.

The teams got off to a fairly even start, deadlocked at 14 apiece through the opening seven minutes, but then Florida clamped down hard defensively. Vanderbilt went nearly six minutes without a field goal as Florida went on a 12-1 run to open up a 16 point lead.

Florida lead 43-29 going to the locker room for halftime and appeared to be coasting to a third consecutive victory in Nashville, but the Commadores came out swinging to start the second half. Scottie Pippen Jr., the sophomore star who’d been held just two of seven shooting in the first half, began to heat up as Vanderbilt went on an 8-2 run to pull within eight.

However, the Gators caught fire from there and put the game away. Florida made nine of its first 11 shots in the second half and the Commodores never got closer than eight points on the way to a 19-point victory.

Colin Castleton had an impactful night, scoring a career-high 23 points on only 13 shots in one of the most efficient performances of the year that may not have included a shot from outside eight feet away. He tacked on five rebounds and two blocks for good measure as Vanderbilt appeared to have no answer for him in the paint defensively.

Junior forward Anthony Duruji got his first starting nod in Johnson’s absence and made the most of it, looking like the best player on the court and making his presence felt on both ends on his way to nine points, four rebounds and a pair of emphatic blocks in the first half. He had to sit a majority of the second half in foul trouble but still finished with 11 points and five rebounds.

Castleton and Duruji were two of five Gators with double-digit points on the night. Scottie Lewis impressed with 16 points, four assists, four rebounds and a trio of blocks of his own as well as several very impressive defensive plays in transition to stop easy baskets. Tre Mann almost had a double-double with nine points and 10 rebounds and Tyree Appleby had 13 points and five rebounds.

Florida’s defense was the star of the night, forcing 16 turnovers and gathering 9 steals and blocks on the night. The Gators won the rebounding battle 36 to 28 and shot 61.8% from the floor (34-55). The team’s three-point shooting wasn’t as impressive after the hot start, making only four of their last 12 attempts from beyond the arc, but considering the team only had two days of practice leading into this game, the team has a lot to feel good about as conference play gets underway.

Florida is next in action Saturday against LSU in their home conference opener.

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