All coach Mike White and the Gators talked about this offseason was picking up the tempo and changing the blueprint after last season's unflattering performance.
Florida (1-0) picked up a win in its first game of the season against Army (3-1), 76-69 Wednesday at the Basketball Hall of Fame Bubbleville in Uncasville, Connecticut. However, the game was very much what we’ve been used to seeing during White’s tenure with the orange and blue.
The Gators engaged in a seesaw, back-and-forth affair with the Black Knights that included 10 lead changes in the second half. In all, UF held the lead for about 10 minutes to Army’s 30, and Florida didn’t pull away for good until 1:40 to go against a squad that hasn’t beaten an SEC team in 50 years.
Falling behind early
After all the talk of team speed coming into Florida’s first matchup of the year, all that fast pace did was cause the Gators to fall behind from the tip quickly. UF never held the lead in the first half against the Black Knights, trailing by as many as 12 points to the boys from the Hudson’s west side.
White addressed Florida’s slow start on defense — which forced Florida to take three timeouts in the first six minutes — to the media after the Gators’ comeback victory.
“Our urgency wasn’t what it needed to be,” he said. “We’re matching casually — it’s not good enough.”
One of the main defensive woes to plague Florida in the first half was foul trouble. Gators star and SEC Preseason Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson led the personal foul charge with three whistles against his name, allowing Army to enter the bonus and camp at the free throw line to end the first 20 minutes of play.
On top of the Gators’ gift-wrapped bonus to the Black Knights, Army couldn’t miss from three.
In the first half, the Black Knight’s combat aviation brigade knocked down six triples, which nearly doubled Florida’s four total threes throughout the entire contest.
Call it a comeback
In particular, two players helped Florida storm back and avoid its first loss to a service academy since 1960 (Florida is now 6-1 all-time against service academy opponents).
Sophomore guard Tre Mann stole the show with a career-high and team-leading 19 points alongside a staggering five steals. Five of his six free throws came in the final 40 seconds of gameplay to help Florida seal off the win.
And then there’s Tyree Appleby. The junior guard and Cleveland State transfer came off of the bench with a vengeance, netting all 15 of his points in the second half and placing himself at the center of a 12-0 run early in the second half to begin the flurry of lead changes.
The most pivotal series of plays in the game came through Appleby.
After knocking down a two-pointer three minutes into the second half to make it 42-38 Army, Appleby jumped right back on defense to force a steal after a Mann turnover and assisted on a Johnson dunk. The Gators cut Army’s lead to two.
On the next Florida possession, Appleby handed UF its first lead of the game after sinking a three from deep — 43-42, Florida.
Appleby attributed his performance to coach White’s advice to be present for a whole 40 minutes.
“You just got to keep a steady head,” Appleby said. “That’s one thing coach preached to us — stay in the moment.”
After the two teams traded leads like they were at a bazaar, Mann put the game away for good with his five freebies after freshman Army guard Charlie Peterson, who is 0-9 from the charity stripe to start the season, missed two game-tying free throws with 40 ticks left.
Florida’s next test comes on Thursday against Boston College at 9:30 p.m. in the Gators’ second and final game at Bubbleville.
After that, the Gators return to the O’Connell Center for their home opener against Stetson on Sunday.
Contact Dylan O'Shea at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @dylanoshea24.