Florida entered Tuesday night’s game against No. 6 Tennessee as a near double-digit underdog, with the line swinging to -8.5 points in the hour before tipoff after news surfaced that the Gators would be without leading rebounder and third-leading scorer Colin Castleton due to an ankle injury.
Florida (7-4, 4-3 SEC) played its best half of the season and set the tone early and often with terrific defensive energy and a physical approach on the glass, riding that momentum to secure a massive short-handed 75-49 win over Tennessee (10-2, 4-2 SEC).
No Castleton, no problem.
And that’s not something the Gators’ staff was exactly expecting heading into the game, not after being outrebounded by 21 in a weekend loss to Mississippi State. Asked about Castleton’s impact so far this season after transferring from Michigan and where Florida would be without him, coach Mike White was blunt.
« I think we’ve got a couple bigs on our roster that would tell you that we’d be just as good, » White said. « But it’d be hard for me to honestly argue that. »
Maybe big man Omar Payne was listening.
The lengthy center was locked in from the start and helped Florida build a 42-22 advantage in points in the paint, all while outrebounding Tennessee 44-36. Payne turned in 9 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocks, helping set the tone with Castleton actively cheering him on from the bench.
The Gators also got a terrific outing from guard Tyree Appleby, who helped dish out 7 assists and keep the ball moving throughout the night on offense. The result was a strong shooting performance, with Florida finishing 31 of 63 (49.2%) from the floor.
The Vols, meanwhile, had no such luck. Hampered and hounded by terrific defense by the Gators, they just couldn’t seem to get into rhythm at all. Big man John Fulkerson got his in the paint, but Tennessee just couldn’t get enough from anyone else with guard Jaden Springer, widely regarded as UT’s best player in terms of creating his own looks on offense, sidelined with an ankle injury.
Fulkerson scored 15 but was the only double-figure scorer in the game for Tennessee. The Vols shot just 17 of 58 (29.3%) from the floor.
Florida did what it needed to down the stretch to ice things, though Tennessee cut into the lead midway through the second half. After the Gators had stretched the lead to 20 in the second half, the Volunteers managed to cut the deficit to just 11.
A quick 8-0 run for Florida in a two-minute span, capped by a dagger 3-pointer by Anthony Duruji following a steal drove home the final nail in the coffin and UF further expanded the lead from there.
The Gators, who have been without Lewis for the past three games, could return closer to full strength now with a significant SEC win in its pocket. Castleton is listed as day to day after turning his ankle, and White sounded hopeful Lewis might return in the near future.
Florida will be back in action Saturday at 2 p.m. at Georgia, with a broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN2.