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Florida 70, Saint Joseph’s 62: Gators survive Hawks, Kerry Blackshear ejection

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Florida showed a brief and beautiful glimpse of what it could be. Then the story from the rest of the season resumed.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators told a tale of two halves in the first round of the 2019 Charleston Classic on Thursday.

Through the first 20 minutes, the Gators gave the world a glimpse of what they could be if they make their shots, surviving a half that Kerry Blackshear Jr. mostly sat for by drilling seven shots from distance and doing a fine job around the hoop to take a 41-25 lead to intermission.

In the second 20 minutes, Florida looked a lot more like it had through the first four games of this up-and-down season: Cold from the field, overly dependent on the play of Andrew Nembhard for better and worse, and bereft of a reliable identity without Blackshear.

That the Gators survived a push by the Hawks and their relentless scorer Ryan Daly is a good thing, to be clear. But that this was a game they had to survive in the first place will do little to assuage fans’ fears about this team.

With Blackshear sidelined first by two early fouls and then by a flagrant two foul — for an elbow that was swung after what looked like a foul on a Saint Joseph’s player (and was assessed as such after replay) was ignored — in the second half, Keyontae Johnson was the Gator who stepped up highest. Johnson scored a career-high 22 points and added 12 rebounds for the first double-double of his sophomore season.

Nembhard, though, was the Gator who shouldered most of the load, taking a career-high 20 shots and making just six in a 16-point, six-rebound effort that could have used a couple more than his two assists and featured too many missed layups for comfort.

Noah Locke? Most of his 13 points came before intermission. Scottie Lewis? A handful of highlight-worthy athletic plays, but just eight points and four rebounds. Florida’s bench? Just 14 points from Omar Payne (who also had a career-high eight boards) and Ques Glover combined, though Payne led a strong effort by a Florida defense that tallied 10 blocks.

Down the stretch in this game, Florida’s offense — fluid and dynamic early, with players happy to throw up threes and frequently making them, especially during a 16-4 run from the tip — once again became one run with an iron grip by Nembhard, which yielded several layup opportunities he couldn’t convert. Florida’s defense, which Mike White smartly switched to a 1-3-1 zone to great effect, made sure that the Gators would never lose their lead, but long stretches of struggle made it possible for the Hawks to slash it to just two, with Daly’s 25 points (on 26 shots) doing much of the whittling.

The Gators did score the game’s final six points, all from the free throw line, after getting a big stop in the final minute. But a Nembhard layup with 4:36 to go was Florida’s only field goal of the final 5:55 of play — and the only other Gator to attempt a shot during that stretch was Johnson.

Florida probably won’t play many more games this year in which Blackshear’s total contributions are one point, two rebounds, and three assists in five minutes, and Nembhard isn’t actually going to miss 80 percent of his layups on most nights. The Gators also won’t see scorers with Daly’s green light and genius for getting the ball to the twine every night.

But they’ve seen enough of the stagnation and frustration that marked much of the second half of this game — and so have their fans. And the sooner that Florida can diminish or eliminate those spates of play, the better.