With his team down 10 and desperate for a bucket, Georgia forward Andrew Garcia cut to the basket, grabbed the ball and found a gaping lane to the rim.
That is until the long arms of sophomore Omar Payne got involved.
The greater Orlando native was excellent all evening, shooting a perfect 5-5 from the field and grabbing nine rebounds. He capped off a strong showing by rising to the summit and handing Garcia an emphatic rejection.
Payne’s dominance belied the key to Florida’s success against the Bulldogs, scoring 52 points in the paint en route to a 92-84 victory Saturday night.
Both teams hit the ground running on the offensive end, as Florida opened the game 4-5 from the field while Georgia started 6-7, including two from long distance. Bulldog center Toumani Camara capped off a 7-0 run, giving the home team a five-point lead through the first four minutes.
Florida responded immediately to cut the lead through forward Anthony Duruji’s jumper, center Colin Castleton’s layup and guard Tre Mann’s glide to the rim.
Junior Noah Locke buried a quick trigger three from the left wing to wrap up a 15-3 run for the Gators, demonstrating the type of confidence Gator fans are used to from a 45% three-point shooter last season. Locke finished with 16 points and had his most prolific three-point performance since the early December Stetson game.
“The offense has changed a little bit and knowing exactly where I’m going to get my shots has been working for me,” Locke said. “Give credit to my teammates, they know exactly where I am in certain positions.”
Georgia’s torrid offensive start was never sustainable, but the Bulldogs inverted their form by going more than seven minutes without a field goal. Florida largely failed to capitalize, never leading by more than two possessions and struggling to keep Georgia off the foul line.
A corner three from Bulldog guard Justin Kier finished a 7-2 Georgia run and narrowed the deficit to just one, before Payne found an opening in the zone and tipped home at the buzzer. Florida led 42-39 going into the locker room, allowing Georgia to shoot better than 50% from the field and forcing only six turnovers against a generally error-prone team.
“We knew we didn’t play that good in the first half,” Mann said. “We knew we had another half to make up for it, so we really came out those first five minutes.”
Florida fastened the clamps ahead of the second half, forcing three early turnovers while manufacturing high-percentage looks around the rim and from behind the arc. UF embarked on a 16-3 run out of the locker room, a crucial stretch that won the game for Florida
“The first five minutes of the second half we were more sound, getting some turnovers and got us out in transition,” White said. “Those few minutes of the half were the difference, if we hadn’t have gotten that lead, I’m not sure we would have been successful.”
Garcia and guard Sahvir Wheeler both worked through the Florida defense for layups before Castleton received the ball at the pegs, turned in on his right shoulder and kissed a hook shot off the glass that made Dan Dakich blush. The Michigan transfer was a game-time decision, and it appears Florida’s medical staff made the right one as the junior scored 14 points, grabbed three boards and dished out three assists in just 18 minutes.
Georgia continued to fight, and a layup from Garcia brought the Gators within single digits. Guard Tyree Appleby and Duruji ripped the net for UF before an and-one conversion from Mann allowed Florida to regain momentum.
The Gators led by as many as 17 late on, but a scramble off a missed free throw found its way back to Georgia guard K.D. Johnson, who buried a contested three and finish off the unorthodox five point play. With an animated UGA team within eleven, Tre Mann cooly found his spot at the left elbow, crossed over, stepped back and found the bottom of the net. The sophomore played one of his best games donning the orange and blue, scoring 24 points from all over the floor, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out four assists.
Georgia made 9-11 from the field down the stretch, causing the single-digit margin, but Florida ran out of Humphrey Coliseum with a comfortable win on Saturday night. After a rough 1-3 stretch, the Gators have now won two in a row and improve to 5-3 in SEC play. Florida will welcome Vanderbilt to the O’Dome on Wednesday before traveling to Morgantown, West Virginia to take on the No. 14 Mountaineers on Saturday.
Action against the Commodores will tip-off at 6:30 and will stream on the SEC Network.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @declanaw