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Florida 76, Army 69: Gators shake slow start to prevail over Black Knights

Florida’s first bow in the 2020-21 season started poorly. But the Gators finished strong.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Trailing Army by margins of 7-0, 12-2 and 39-30 in the first half had to be a familiar feeling for the Florida Gators men’s basketball team, or at least the ones who were around for the 2019-20 season.

Florida showed down the stretch that it has some of that team’s fortitude, too.

Tre Mann scored 19 points, had six rebounds, dished five assists, and recorded five steals, and Tyree Appleby contributed all 15 of his points in the second half, helping Florida stage a comeback to beat the Black Knights, 76-69.

Florida started slowly — a hallmark of the program’s play a year ago — and found itself trailing for the entirety of the first half largely because it struggled to defend the three-point line, where Army splashed in six threes. Foul trouble put both Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis on the bench, too, and made Appleby’s first appearance for Florida just a cameo in the first half.

But the second half saw a much stronger and more intense Florida team, and a 16-3 run over the first eight minutes of the half gave the Gators what was then a game-high five-point lead.

The Black Knights, though, would not go away, and went point-for-point with the Gators over the game’s next six minutes, then took a two-point lead at 62-60 with 4:24 to play — which is when Johnson, who was whistled for his fourth foul midway through the second period, returned to the floor.

The two go-ahead free throws from Army to get it to that margin were just the beginning of a brilliant stretch of basketball, as the teams combined to score on the game’s next eight possessions to push the score to 69-all.

But only Florida would score from there, with the Gators forcing two turnovers and misses on Army’s final four shots and Black Knights big Charlie Peterson missing both free throws down 71-69 with under a minute to play. Florida didn’t score from the floor during its closing 7-0 run, but Scottie Lewis (eight points, two rebounds, two steals) and Mann made seven of eight freebies down the stretch.

Ultimately, Florida outscored Army 45-30 in the second half — largely after scrapping the press that it had installed this offseason, only to see Army break it repeatedly before the break.

Johnson’s 16 points, three boards, two assists, and two steals made him the third of three Gators in double figures on the day, but Mann and Appleby were the two stars of the day, with Michigan transfer Colin Castleton’s surprising showing (nine points, eight rebounds) being perhaps the third-best showing by a Gator.

Four Army players hit multiple threes, with Lonnie Grayson’s three helping him to 13 points to lead the Black Knights.

Florida will probably need a more consistent 40 minutes of basketball to beat Boston College on Thursday night, even though its highs on this day were high. But if it can keep its expected leaders out of foul trouble and get similar production from its lieutenants as it did from Mann and Appleby on this day, it’s got the capacity to be a strong outfit.

If that sounds familiar? Well, it is.