Florida may not have had Keyontae Johnson, Scottie Lewis or Colin Castleton Tuesday night, but they had enough to take down the sixth-ranked Tenneessee Volunteers at home, 75-49, behind big performances from Omar Payne and Tyree Appleby.
After speculation about whether Lewis would return against the Volunteers after a COVID-19 exposure, it was Castleton who wound up making waves with his availability. Less than an hour before tipoff, it was announced the Michigan transfer, who had scored 16 or more points in four of six conference games and amassed 14 blocks the last two contests, would sit to rest an ankle injury.
Florida took the court undermanned and outgunned by a 10-1 No. 6 Tennessee team, not to mention having lost three of its last four games. So the team promptly responded with its best performance of the season and sent the Volunteers home with a 26-point loss.
The Gators took the lead in the opening two minutes and never trailed the rest of the game. Florida scores 11 of the first 16 points of the game, then went on a 10-3 run midway through the first half to take a 27-17 lead with 5:50 remaining in the first half. The Gators kept Tennessee at arms length for the rest of the first half to go to the locker room with a 38-27 lead.
After a slow start to the second half that had the Volunteers trailing only seven, Florida went on another run, this time 15-2, to open up a deficit that Tennessee couldn’t make a dent in for the rest of the game. The Gators outscored their opponents by 15 in the second half to finish of the statement victory.
Omar Payne, called into the starting lineup with Castleton’s absence, responded with one of his best games since his impressionable double-double against Auburn a year ago. He scored nine points and the Gators shot defense didn’t miss a beat as he swatted a staggering five blocks of his own. He and junior transfer Osayi Osifo finally let Florida establish itself on the glass, especially offensively as the two had nine and six respectively including nine on the offensive end between the two of them as the Gators won the rebounding battle, 44-36.
Tyree Appleby shined on both ends of the court tonight. The Cleveland State transfer, forced to take the brunt of running point for Florida’s offense after Tre Mann was in foul trouble early, was a menace on both ends of the court for Tennessee. With three steals, including multiple in the backcourt that seemingly always led to easy baskets as Florida won the turnover margin, 18-15. On the offensive end, Appleby shot 5-9 from the field on the way to 13 points and a game-leading seven assists.
Mann and Noah Locke, the starting staples all year long, were not to be forgotten on the offensive end either. Mann had 12 points, four rebounds and three assists of his own despite the limited minutes as well as shooting 6-11 from the floor. Locke had a team-high 14 points that included a pair of threes.
The Volunteers, whose athletic department has had a rough week, only had one double-digit scorer (senior forward John Fulkerson with 15) as the team shot 29.3% (17-58) from the floor, 16.7% from three (3-18) and 48% from the free-throw line (12-25). They never led after the opening basket and never got closer than 11 points away in the final 16:30.
Florida, who is now 7-4 for the year and 4-3 in the SEC, will take the court again Saturday as they go on the road to take on the rival Georgia Bulldogs at 2 p.m.