The Auburn Tigers rolled into the O’Connell Center on Saturday with the smallest number — and maybe the biggest pelt — of any Florida Gators opponent this year.
And the Gators bagged the big game on the back of their biggest man and tenacious, terrific defense.
Omar Payne made all nine of his shots — none from more than a step or two from the basket — and posted a career-high 19 points and 11 rebounds to lead Florida to its 69-47 win over the No. 4 Tigers, who shot just 26 percent from the floor in the face of whirling Gators defense that sealed off the paint and streaked out to shooters.
Florida’s 9-0 run to begin the game — which featured the first two Payne buckets of the day — set the tone for the day, even though Auburn rallied immediately to tie the game at 13. And the Gators’ defense stayed consistently excellent throughout the proceedings, even though long stretches of play without Andrew Nembhard and Keyontae Johnson due to foul trouble in the first half saw a discombobulated Florida offense cough up 12 turnovers.
Auburn made just 14 of 55 shots on the day — six in the first half, eight in the second — and ran out of ways to score early in the second period, with favorable whistles in the first half that led to the Tigers’ 10-for-10 performance at the foul line only producing a 5-for-11 line from the charity stripe in the second. And though Florida’s lead was just five points at halftime, it grew to double digits before the under-16 timeout, and never dropped below six points after a Johnson layup took it to seven early on.
Payne’s scoring and putbacks were only part of Florida’s interior dominance on the day, with Kerry Blackshear compensating for a quiet day from the field (4-for-14 for 11 points) by vacuuming up 16 rebounds, 15 of them on the defensive end against the SEC’s top team at cleaning the offensive glass.
And while Florida got good contributions from freshmen Tre Mann (five points, including a sizable stepback three) and Ques Glover (five points, two assists) in Nembhard’s absence in the first half, the sophomore point guard — battling an illness that had cost him practices this week — chipped in six points on three strong drives, six assists, and five rebounds in an effort that saw him help keep Florida’s turnovers in check in the second half.
Nembhard’s spectacular right-to-left reverse finish on a drive to put Florida up 60-44 on the first play out of the under-four timeout in the second half also touched off a red-hot Gators finish, as Noah Locke (11 points, three threes), Johnson, and Blackshear each drained threes on consecutive possessions to the delight of a delirious crowd.
For Florida, this was a big win at a big moment, one that probably provides confidence heading into a rugged week featuring games against LSU and Baylor and comfort that this season will still probably end with NCAA Tournament competition.
If bigger ones follow, though, this team may still be able to chase down big dreams.