GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kerry Blackshear Jr.’s Florida debut came in front of his mom and several other family members. It’s one of the reasons he chose to play in Gainesville, about a two-hour drive from his hometown.
It also made his first game with the Gators even more special.
Blackshear had 20 points and 10 rebounds, looking every bit as good as advertised as No. 6 Florida opened its most anticipated season in more than a decade with a 74-59 victory over North Florida on Tuesday night.
“My goodness, he’s a heck of a player,” Florida coach Mike White said. “It’s hard for anyone to average 20 and 10. I don’t foresee that happening. But he’s a terrific player and he gives you the opportunity offensively to play in a variety of ways.
“He scores in the interior. He draws fouls. He can shoot it. And probably his most underrated asset is how well he passes the basketball. He’s extremely unselfish as well.”
Blackshear made 8 of 11 shots, including a 3-pointer, and was perfect from the free throw line. The 6-foot-10 graduate transfer who came to Gainesville after four years at Virginia Tech added three assists and two steals.
He gave the Gators their first significant inside presence since Patric Young five years ago. Of course, it came against an overmatched team from the Atlantic Sun Conference.
Blackshear and Florida should get a better test against rival Florida State on Sunday.
Still, Blackshear’s arrival this summer made Florida an instant title contender in the Southeastern Conference. He joined a team that returned three starters to go along White’s best recruiting class, which featured high school All-Americans Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann.
Lewis finished with nine points, five rebounds and two assists in his college debut. Mann had 11 points and four boards.
Noah Locke chipped in 14 points for the Gators.
But all eyes were on Blackshear, including some really close to him. Family members only got to see two or three of his games a year while he was at Virginia Tech. So having so many on hand for this one made the night more enjoyable.
“It’s great,” he said. “I always have my brothers on the court, but it’s even better to have my immediate family there, too.”
JT Escobar led North Florida with 15 points. Garrett Sams added 14.
Florida was 3 of 15 from 3-point range, but overcame those long-range woes by outscoring the Ospreys 38-14 in the paint.
The Gators got off to a slow start and even trailed early. But they used a 16-0 run midway through the first half to seize control of the game. They led by as many as 24 early in the second half before UNF got hot from behind the arc.
“For this team to get where we want to be, we’ve got to make an exponential growth,” Blackshear said.
Count UNF coach Matthew Driscoll as one who’s convinced Florida will get there — thanks to Blackshear.
“He’s going to allow (Florida) to be in the that upper echelon, be top of the country and compete like that because he’s got that understanding,” Driscoll said. “He’s endured. He’s got strength. And he’s got character. When you have those three things, you can do really, really special things for your team.”
North Florida: The Ospreys return eight of their top nine scorers from last season, including four senior starters. They were picked to finish second in the Atlantic Sun Conference, with Sams, Wajid Aminu and Ivan Gandia-Rosa giving them a chance to win the league.
The Ospreys were undersized against Florida, but could have made it even closer with a few more 3s. They were 11 of 34 from behind the arc.
Florida: The Gators were a popular preseason pick to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, and they showed flashes on both ends of the court. This is their highest preseason ranking since being No. 1 to open the 2006-07 season.
North Florida: Hosts Florida National of the NAIA on Thursday. It’s the first of four straight for UNF at home.
Florida: Hosts Florida State on Sunday. The Gators have lost five in a row in the series.