As Mississippi St. charged down the floor for another assault on the Florida basket, UF defenders were left in an unenviable position.
Allow the dump-off to sophomore Tolu Smith, the man who brought Shaq back to the Gulf Coast with a 27 point, 14 rebound performance on Saturday, or allow senior Abdul Ado, who hadn’t missed a shot and was nearing a double-double, to attack the rim.
Florida chose the former, and Ado rattled the rim for a dunk filled with foot-stomping swagger, giving the Bulldogs an eleven point lead with just over a minute to play.
Those were two of the 52 points in the paint allowed by the Gators on Saturday afternoon, consigning Florida to a 72-69 defeat despite a late-game comeback.
Both teams looked sloppy from the opening tip, with Florida and Miss. St combining for four turnovers in the opening two and a half minutes. Castleton knocked down a pair from the free-throw line and converted in transition, opening up an 8-4 lead behind a strong defensive showing for UF.
Junior Anthony Duruji committed an important second foul just four minutes in, forcing the forward to sit the rest of the half. His absence led to an immediate 6-0 run for the Bulldogs.
Both teams struggled offensively. Florida shot 37% in the first half while MSU made just one three and shot 40% from the line. The Bulldogs led by as many as five, but a running hook from Castleton tied the game at 26 before a triple from junior Noah Locke gave the Gators a three-point lead.
Castleton kept Florida competitive in the first half. He scored ten points and extended his range with a few hook shots over defensive standout Ado. The Michigan transfer also racked up four blocks despite walking on eggshells after an early offensive foul.
“He’s had a great couple of weeks here and there’s a lot of work to do before he reaches his ceiling, Florida coach Mike White said.”
Florida came out of the locker room in a zone look, and White’s adjustment did little to protect the UF interior. An 8-0 Bulldog run was sparked by center Tolu Smith, who scored two buckets down low with some hard-nosed, back to the basket work before a hoop and the harm in transition.
“Smith was fantastic,” White said. “He’s one of those guys that looks big and strong on tape, but when you see how bodies bounce off him in person you have a new level of respect.”
A quick 5-0 spurt off of a three from sophomore Tre Mann and a nifty layup from sophomore Tyree Appleby preceded a Mississippi State turnover, and the Gators had a chance to force a one-possession game.
But the Bulldogs fed the hot hand, and two buckets from Smith extended the MSU advantage to nine
Castleton brought the Gators within four after probing the paint and scoring through the contact from under the basket. However, Miss. St’s dominance on the interior prevented UF from drawing any closer.
Ado’s slam forced Mike White to call a timeout, which nearly inspired a comeback for the ages.
A putback from Castleton and a steal and score from Mann left UF down five with 20 seconds left. The Bulldogs split a pair at the line before Mann converted an and-one opportunity.
A missed layup from guard D.J. Stewart gave the Gators a final shot, but Mann clanked his double-clutched effort off the rim and the Florida comeback was in vain.
While White appreciated UF’s effort at the end, he was critical of his team’s mentality and overall performance.
“(We) didn’t play with enough physical toughness; we just didn’t, White said. “This team right now is affected a little bit too easily by whether or not the ball is going through the net.”
Florida will have to regroup quickly, as the Gators will welcome top-ten Tennessee to Gainesville on Tuesday. Tip-off is at 7 p.m and the action will stream on ESPN.