COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — When Andrew Nembhard is on his game, Florida usually is, too.
The Gators sophomore was certainly on against South Carolina, with 21 points and 10 assists in an 81-68 victory Tuesday night.
Nembhard played with poise, flash and a killer instinct his helping Florida (10-4) start 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference for the third time in four years.
“I played aggressive and just let the game come to me,” Nembhard said. “It was good.”
Maybe even better than that, according to Florida coach Mike White.
“That’s as well as he’s played, in my opinion, as a Gator,” White said. “He just continues to improve and is getting confidence as a scorer.”
He showed plenty of that against the Gamecocks (8-6, 0-1).
The 6-foot-5 Nembhard made 8 of 14 shots, including three 3-pointers. He also had 10 of Florida’s 13 assists as he controlled the action anytime South Carolina got close.
Keyontae Johnson added 19 points and Scottie Lewis tied his career high with 15 points for the Gators.
Nembhard also helped the Gators withstand a first half where leading scorer and rebounder Kerry Blackshear Jr. played just two minutes with foul trouble.
Still, the Gamecocks cut the lead to a point twice in the second half, the last time on Maik Kotsar’s bucket with 13:35 to play.
But Lewis followed with a 3-pointer, Nembhard hit two foul shots and Blackshear made three attempts at the line to push the lead to 61-53.
Florida was still only up 73-68 on Kotsar’s inside basket with 2:43 left. But Nembhard found Blackshear on the next possession, leading to a foul shot before Nembhard put things away with a no-doubt 3-pointer with 2:01 to go to stretch things to 77-68.
South Carolina could not respond in losing its third straight at home.
Kotsar led the Gamecocks with 18 points and 10 rebounds.
“We played with a lot more spirit today in the way we like to play,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “But we just got out-toughed.”
Florida played an efficient first half despite Blackshear’s absence. The Gators, who came in 10th in the SEC in field-goal percentage, were 16 of 32 from the field in the opening half.
Florida used a 24-13 surge during an 11-minute stretch of the first half to move in front. Lewis got the run started with seven straight points, Nembhard had a pair of baskets and Ques Glover made a long jumper from the right side as the Gators took a 40-33 lead with 1:24 left in the half.
The Gamecocks came in to the game dead last in SEC foul shooting (60.3 percent), yet hit 13 of 14 tries in the first 20 minutes. They finished 18 of 24 from the line.
THE BIG PICTURE
Florida: The Gators were ranked in the Top 10 when the season started and won the Charleston Classic, defeating Xavier in a thrilling final. They once more look like a team capable of competing in the SEC, especially if Blackshear stays on the court.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks appear a mess right now. They seemed to be on an upward arc with road wins at Clemson and Virginia. But they’ve lost to Stetson and now the Gators at home as they struggle to find an offensive rhythm.
Florida coach Mike White won his 200th game as a college coach. While he says he doesn’t put much stock into reaching those milestones, White was happy that he’s endured and had some success coaching the game he loves. “I guess I’m getting old,” the 42-year-old White said. “Wow. That was a blur.”
South Carolina coach Frank Martin said there was nothing other than urging his player forward behind a shove of freshman Jalyn McCreary late in the opening half. Martin told McCreary to check in and McCreary was slow to move so Martin pushed him toward the scorer’s table. “People are mad?” Martin asked. “Maybe next time I’ll hug him. Carry him to the table, say please tell them you’re checking in.”
Florida heads to Missouri on Saturday night.
South Carolina plays at Tennessee on Saturday.
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