Keith Stone was plummeting into a chasm of doubt.
The redshirt sophomore forward was struggling with scoring — with being the player he was brought to Florida to be. His confidence eroded with every missed shot, and the derision he saw on social media accelerated his descent. Then coach Mike White extended a hand to Stone, as did the rest of Florida’s coaching staff.
He’s been a different player since.
“For about a month now, he’s just been consistently very good in practice,” White said, “and we’re seeing it more and more in games.”
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Stone has scored in double figures in Florida’s last three games, and White is hoping his success continues on Saturday when the Gators (12-4, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) travel to Oxford, Mississippi, to take on White’s alma mater, Ole Miss (9-7, 2-2 SEC), at 1 p.m.
He’s also hoping it continues beyond one weekend because with Stone’s help, the Gators have gotten on track after losing four of five games from late November to mid-December, including a home stunner against Loyola Chicago. But getting to where he is now — a place where he can score consistently, silence outside opinions and help his team win — has taken time. He’ll be the first to admit that.
“I was in a dark place,” the Boynton Beach native said. And crawling out is still a process.
That dark place developed early in the season for the baby-faced, man-bodied forward. With his 6-foot-8, 245-pound frame, he was asked to help down low with many of Florida’s big men banged up or out with injuries. He did not play well.
Aside from an outlier game against North Florida when he scored 14 points, Stone never broke double digits until January. That outburst — 18 points at then-No. 11 Texas A&M on Jan. 2 — set off a string of double digit outings from Stone, and he wants to extend it against the Rebels. But the win over Texas A&M wasn’t when he started seeing the light atop the darkness. That came earlier.
The Gators were playing Incarnate Word, and Stone scored six points with two steals and four rebounds to help UF to a 15-point victory. He notched the same number of rebounds and one more point a game earlier. But in the theater of sports, it’s often unclear what breeds confidence. Sometimes it’s a traumatic event, sometimes it’s nothing. It isn’t clear what exactly did the job for Stone, but he believes something did. His numbers since back him up.
So do his words, which White said have become more noticeable in practice for the once-quiet Stone.
“I’ve been getting out of my shell slowly, even though I don’t like talking,” he said. “I come out of my shell for my team.”
With his team on a six-game winning streak and undefeated in SEC play, that change has been part of the solution for the Gators. But so, too, has what White told Stone in their meeting: Just do the simple things, and don’t worry what anyone has to say.
Which is why Stone will continue his usual pregame ritual against Ole Miss — putting up shots and listening to rapper Post Malone — this time without caring what anyone says when he makes or misses an attempt. He’ll be focused on helping his team win the game instead.