With three minutes left in the first half against Tennessee, Gators junior guard Tyree Appleby strode down the court on a fastbreak. To the left, sophomore forward Omar Payne matched Appleby’s pace.
Appleby surprised the Volunteers defenders with a high feed to the left of the basket. With one hand, Payne left them in disbelief and hammered in the alley-oop.
Coming into Tuesday’s matchup against SEC giant Tennessee, Payne was averaging 3.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 14.1 minutes per game off the bench.
Success has come in spurts for the 6-foot-10-inch Florida big man capable of big performances when called upon. The Kissimme, Florida, native broke out for a 19-point, 11-rebound double-double on a 9-for-9 shooting effort in a 2019 match against No. 4 Auburn. While the game is evidence Payne can keep up, he hadn’t consistently stood out to warrant a slot in the starting lineup.
However, with junior forward Keyontae Johnson out for the year after collapsing on the court in a contest against FSU and sophomore guard Scottie Lewis and junior forward Colin Castleton sitting Tuesday’s contest out, Payne was thrust onto the court for tip-off for the first time this season.
He didn’t disappoint.
In 27 minutes of action, Payne netted nine points, going 4-for-5 from the field, nabbed a team-high nine rebounds and swatted five shots in Florida’s 75-49 upset win over Tennessee.
After the game, Payne said he’s capable of contributing to winning efforts day in and day out, and he finally showed that after an up-and-down start to the season.
While Payne was the standout fill-in Thursday, others deserve praise for their efforts, too.
As Payne replaced Castleton’s inside presence, sophomore guard Ques Glover picked up the slack on the perimeter in Lewis’ absence. The Knoxville, Tennessee, native popped off for a bench-leading 10 points and three steals in 15 minutes against his hometown program. Glover came into Tuesday averaging slightly more than eight minutes a game.
Freshman guard Niels Lane, sophomore center Jason Jitoboh and junior forward Osayi Osifo all contributed off the bench as well, with each player earning more than 10 minutes of playing time. The trio combined for 12 points and 14 rebounds to assist the Gators to victory in a game in which no one expected a win.
What made such seasoned depth en route to a 26-point upset victory was possible because of Florida’s recruiting and hidden gems from the transfer portal.
Appleby and Castleton, both transfers from Cleveland State and Michigan, respectively, stepped into starting rolls on this Florida squad and bumped some of its talent to the bench. Osifo, a solid player off of the bench, transferred from Eastern Florida State College.
The Gators didn’t have this amount of depth present on its roster last season, and it’s difficult to find a reason for how an injury-ravaged 2019-20 squad would have pulled off the upset that Tuesday’s team did. That’s not an indictment on last year’s team, but rather a sign of a step in the right direction for this year’s bunch.
While both Lewis and Castleton are expected to return to the lineup on Saturday’s road matchup against Georgia, coach Mike White will have more confidence calling upon the “next man up” when needed.
Contact Dylan O’Shea at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @dylanoshea24