GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida’s best performance of the season – maybe even of coach Mike White’s six-year tenure – came without three starters.
Noah Locke scored 14 points, Tyree Appleby added 13 and the short-handed Gators stunned No. 6 Tennessee in dominating fashion, 75-49 on Tuesday night.
Tre Mann chipped in 12 points for Florida, which got unexpected help from several bench guys to offset being without guard Scottie Lewis (COVID-19 protocols) and forward Colin Castleton (ankle).
Forward Omar Payne, starting for the first time in nearly a year, finished with nine points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots for the Gators (7-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference).
“It was my opportunity to shine,” Payne said. “I’m capable of doing it, so I should be doing it every day.”
Seldom-used subs Jason Jitoboh, Osayi Osifo, Niels Lane and Ques Glover also delivered quality minutes against the SEC’s top team. Jitoboh had three rebounds, a block and a steal. Osifo finished with four points and six boards. Lane added six points and five rebounds. And Glover chipped in 10 points and three steals.
“That’s as well as this group has played,” White said. “I told them, `You’re going to get more minutes tonight. What are you going to do with it? No one shied away from it.”
The Volunteers (10-2, 4-2) had a woeful shooting performance and were equally ineffective on the other end. Florida, which spent the last month slowly tweaking its offense to overcome the loss of standout forward Keyontae Johnson – who collapsed on the court in early December and is likely out for the season – pounded Tennessee inside.
The Gators outrebounded the Vols by eight and outscored them 42-22 in the paint. Tennessee’s 49 points were a season low.
“We proved tonight we’re not good enough to go through the motions,” said Vols coach Rick Barnes, who promised lineup changes moving forward.
Florida used a 7-0 run to build a double-digit late in the first half and a 13-2 spurt early in the second to stretch its advantage to 20 points (53-33).
The result was Florida’s most surprising victory since upsetting No. 4 Auburn in Gainesville last January. This might have been even more shocking given the state of Florida’s roster. Johnson, Castleton and Lewis combined to average nearly 40 points.
Castleton tweaked an ankle in Florida’s last game and was ruled out shortly after warmups. Lewis missed his third straight game, but is expected to return this weekend.
“We have to continue to play this way,” Locke said. “We’d just be hurting ourselves if we don’t. We saw we can do this. We just got to continue to do it. We showed that we can compete with any team. It was just all about us. … I feel like if we continue to do that, we can beat anyone.”
Tennessee shot 29% from the field and hit 3 of 18 from 3-point range. John Fulkerson led the Vols with 15 points, four rebounds and five assists. But the 6-foot-9, 215-pound forward was no match for Payne and Jitoboh down low.
Leading scorer Victor Bailey Jr. finished with four points on 1-of-12 shooting.
“It hurts when you play as badly as we played tonight,” Barnes said.
The Vols were without guard Jaden Springer, who injured his left ankle against Vanderbilt on Saturday and hasn’t practiced since.
Springer, a freshman, averages 10 points. His replacements did little to slow down Florida, which continually drove into the lane for easy baskets or dishes to wide-open teammates.
Tennessee: The Vols had won four in a row in the series and a fifth straight seemed like a lock given Florida’s injury situation. But the Gators exposed Tennessee’s biggest weakness: a lack of a post presence.
Florida: White seems to get his best from his guys against top competition. The Gators now have wins of 17, 22 and 26 points against top-10 teams during White’s six seasons.
Tennessee: Hosts No. 19 Missouri on Saturday.
Florida: Plays at Georgia on Saturday.