Noah Locke

Noah Locke

Billy Donovan’s final game against Vanderbilt was almost exactly five years ago. The Gators lost an ugly 50-47 game in the middle of a disappointing campaign where they went 16-17 and missed out on both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT for the first time since 1997.

Fortunately for Florida, what Donovan saw on Saturday night in his return to the O’Connell Center was a lot different.

The Gators stormed past last-place Vanderbilt en route to an 84-66 blowout victory. Florida (16-9, 8-4 SEC) never trailed in the game and led by as many as 32. Offensively, the Gators couldn’t miss, shooting over 50 percent from the field and from deep.

It wasn’t until eight minutes into the first half that things got out of hand. After scoring just 13 points, Florida exploded for 35 points over the last 12 minutes of the half to take a 48-19 lead into the locker room. All nine Florida players who made appearances scored at least two points in the half, led by guard Noah Locke with 13.

As a team, Florida shot over 50 percent from the field and 58 percent from behind the arc.

Locke terrorized the SEC’s worst three-point defense all night long, registering 19 points. He had 13 in the first half alone. He shot 6 for 8 from the field, all of them coming from the outside.

“Just shooting the ball like I always shot it,” Locke said. “Just have confidence in my shot, that’s pretty much what it is.”

The charity stripe was the only spot on the court where the Gators couldn’t consistently score all game long. UF shot a measly 66.7 percent, with center Omar Payne notably going 1 for 5.

The game was essentially over at halftime, with Vanderbilt facing a deficit that would impress even the federal government.

But the most significant moment of the night was the halftime ceremony in which the O’Dome floor was named after Donovan. A video tribute was played on the Jumbotron as the legendary coach watched from the floor before he gave a three-minute speech.

“With the amount of time we all put in as coaches that we actually could be so blessed and so fortunate to grow up, be in this environment for 19 years,” Donovan said. “And what this community did for my family, I will always be indebted for.”

A total of 28 former players showed up for the ceremony, including current NBA star Bradley Beal.

The Commodores actually managed to outscore Florida 47-36 in the second half, but, as evidenced by the mass exodus of Gators fans throughout the second half, it didn’t matter. All that mattered on Saturday night were two things: Billy Donovan and that the Gators won.

“I’m just so glad that on a night where the University of Florida and Gator Nation is honoring Billy Donovan that we’re able to get a win,” coach Mike White said. “Did that come in our mind? Yeah, this was a big night for our athletic department and for coach (Donovan’s) legacy.”

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