CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Florida coach Mike White’s not sure where his Gators will end up this season. He just finally likes the direction they’re headed.
Kerry Blackshear Jr. had 20 points and 11 rebounds as Florida beat state rival Miami 78-58 Friday to advance to the Charleston Classic championship.
The Gators (4-2) were sixth in the preseason Top 25, but fell out after losses to Florida State and UConn in their first four games. White does not believe winning the first two games in Charleston mean the struggles are over, only that his team is learning and improving every time out.
“I’m not one of these ‘I told you so’ guys,” White said. “We’re still figuring out each other. I do think we’re going to be a lot better than we are now in couple of months. Does that mean we’re ranked 37th? 14th? I don’t get caught up in that.”
White did enjoy what he thought was Florida’s best game of the year. Much of that was Blackshear, the Virginia Tech grad transfer who now has a chance to win a second straight Charleston title after helping the Hokies hoist the trophy last November.
He also bounced back from an awful first game Thursday where he picked up two quick fouls and sat for most of the half before getting ejected for a flagrant foul early in the second half.
Blackshear said the foul was accidental, but he’s got to be smarter than that going forward if he wants to be a leader for Florida. He’s also happy with giving his latest teammates a try for a title.
“It’s definitely good feeling,” Blackshear said. “Being with a team that I like to be around helps me with the adjustment.”
Blackshear scored Florida’s first eight points, and his 3-pointer later in the period closed the Gators’ 20-2 run.
Still, Miami (4-2) rallied to tie things at 45-all in the second half on Chris Lykes’ high-arcing 3-pointer. Noah Locke, though, followed with a 3-pointer to start a 15-4 run that put Florida ahead to stay.
The Gators will take on No. 18 Xavier or UConn on Sunday night for the tournament crown.
Miami, whose perfect 8-0 record at Charleston ended, will vie against the Xavier-UConn loser for third place Sunday.
This game had a higher intensity given the schools’ long athletic history and position as two of the biggest, most successful programs in the Sunshine State. The teams have met 69 times, but only seven of those games have come since 1990. Their last meeting was also an early-season tournament, the Advocare Invitational in Orlando, Florida, where the Gators topped the Hurricanes 65-56.
Whenever one side threatened to gain control, the other fought back in a first half that seemed more like a game near the end of a season instead of the beginning. At one point, Blackshear looked behind as he went back on defense and saw four bodies on the floor after fighting for a rebound.
Lykes had 16 points to lead Miami.
Miami: The Hurricanes had few answers for Florida’s inside game and were outrebounded 34-25. And when Miami’s shots were not falling in the second half (the Hurricanes made just 3 of 17 attempts), the Gators took advantage. It was Miami’s largest loss to the Gators since falling 101-81 in 1988.
Florida: The Gators started the season No. 6 in the rankings and fell out after falling to Florida State and UConn in its first four games. Florida, though, has made strides in looking like the Top 10 team it was projected to be this season.
DEFENSIVE WORK AHEAD
Miami coach Jim Larranaga said his team must improve its defense if it hopes to have the year it wants this season. He said there were too many instances of mistakes made by younger players still learning, especially as Florida took control the final 15 minutes.
The game featured the Gak brothers, one on each side. Gorjok Gak is a 6-foot-11 junior for the Gators while Deng Gak is a 6-10 sophomore with Miami. But only Deng Gak saw action as Gorjok continues dealing with a shoulder injury. Deng finished with four points and three rebounds in 11 minutes.
Miami will face either No. 18 Xavier or UConn in the third-place game here Sunday night.
Florida plays for the championship against No. 18 Xavier or UConn to close the tournament Sunday night.
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