A poor finish against Butler turned into a sluggish start for Florida’s basketball team against North Florida on Wednesday night.
Florida’s Thanksgiving week jaunt down to the Caribbean didn’t quite go as expected.
The Gators found themselves down 10-9 five minutes into the game. The Ospreys, affectionately dubbed the “Birds of Trey” for their three-point shooting prowess, preyed upon the Gators early in the contest.
That is, until Deaundrae Ballard checked into the game.
The sophomore guard scored nine-straight points for the Gators, including an emphatic alley-oop. Ballard’s takeover sparked the team to a 16-3 run, wresting back control from UNF. He went on to score 15, and UF didn't trail again in a convincing 98-66 win.
“It was a big step, big growth,” Ballard said. “We just have to keep it going every game.”
He was a bit of an afterthought during the offseason, with veterans like Kevarrius Hayes — who had 12 points on 6-of-7 shooting Tuesday night — and Jalen Hudson taking center stage. Since the season started, however, Ballard has been anything but an afterthought. He’s Florida’s leading scorer with 76 points in seven games after scoring just 60 points in his final 24 appearances last season.
“He’s playing with a lot of energy, since the first game,” coach Mike White said. “I’m proud of his progression.”
His 12 first-half points fueled the Gators (4-3) to a 20-point lead at the half. Florida’s 53 points at the break were the most it has scored in any half this season.
Freshman guard Noah Locke got the starting nod over Hudson for the third straight game and continued to be a factor behind the arc. He led the team in scoring (18) against the Ospreys (2-5), hitting 4-of-6 from deep. UF as a team shot 57 percent from the field, its best mark of the year.
Hudson played 19 minutes and scored six points after averaging just 14 minutes per game in the Battle 4 Atlantis last week.
Locke wasn’t the only true freshman to get in on the action. Forward Keyontae Johnson scored 11 points, and starting point guard Andrew Nembhard had a season-best 11 assists and zero turnovers. It was his first double-figure assist game. Nembhard has started every game this season and has proven his value as a passer while his shot develops.
“He’s really good,” White said. “He’s a terrific communicator, he’s tough, he cares, he’s competitive.”
Redshirt freshman Isaiah Stokes returned to the court after suffering a knee injury before last week’s tournament, albeit only for nine minutes. White will likely ease him back into a more prominent role to avoid getting injured again. Stokes missed all of last season after suffering a torn ACL during his senior year of high school.
Forward Chase Johnson missed yet another game due to a concussion, and center Gorjok Gak has yet to make his season debut after having offseason knee surgery.
White said that he was encouraged with his team’s offensive performance, but is still disappointed in a lack of accountability and leadership at this point of the season.
“You can’t have one guy that’s vocal on a really good team,” White said. “That doesn’t exist.”
Follow Tyler Nettuno on Twitter @TylerNettuno or contact him at [email protected].