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Monday, February 06, 2023

Anthony Duruji paves the way for the Gators’ second-half comeback

Florida completes remarkable climb after trailing by six at halftime.

<p>Forward Anthony Duruji led the Gators with 22 points Wednesday against Mississippi State. Photo courtesy of the SEC Media Portal.</p>

Forward Anthony Duruji led the Gators with 22 points Wednesday against Mississippi State. Photo courtesy of the SEC Media Portal.

Florida freshman Kowacie Reeves jogged up the court with his team leading 70-66. He and his teammates worked the ball in and out of the paint, searching for an open look. Forward Anthony Duruji held the rock in the corner as the shot clock wound down.

Duruji found Reeves isolated behind the 3-point line after a drive down the baseline.

Reeves launched a heave from distance. Bang.

The Stephen C. O’Connell Center exploded with cheers as the visiting Mississippi State Bulldogs called their third timeout.

Florida (11-6, 2-3) ran away late to defeat Mississippi State (12-5, 3-2) 80-72 Wednesday night. The victory is the Gators’ second-consecutive and seventh at home. 

A stout second-half performance from Duruji helped rally Florida over a Bulldogs team that gave them fits all night. The Louisiana Tech transfer stacked 22 points, 18 of which poured on in the final 20 minutes, and a season-high five steals to power UF. Reeves concluded the game with 14 points, shooting 50% from 3-point range.

The Gators pulled within six before the break thanks to a shower of 3-pointers from Reeves and guard Tyree Appleby. The senior sprinkled in three shots from the charity stripe as well, capping off a three-minute, 10-4 run.

Florida took advantage of a two-minute scoring drought by the Bulldogs with a new refound energy. Duruji led the comeback with 10 points. The senior swished in two from downtown, took a trip to the charity stripe and threw down a putback slam. 

Eventually, the Bulldogs forced three consecutive turnovers, sending Florida into a scoring drought of their own. Mississippi State capitalized, regaining its earlier six-point advantage.

Trailing once again, a sudden 14-0 run ignited the Gators. 3-point shots from Reeves, Duruji and Appleby began to fall as the Gators found prime looks on breakaways.  Duruji stayed glued to his defensive assignment’s hip, poking the ball away and creating three transition possessions.

Florida forward Colin Castleton was notably absent from Wednesday night’s contest. The senior was ruled out with a left shoulder injury just a half-hour before the opening tip. The setback occurred during UF’s practice session on Tuesday afternoon, and Florida head coach Mike White is still waiting to have a clear picture of the severity of the injury.

Duruji thought the team did well on both sides of the floor despite missing their leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker. He actually thought it was an excellent opportunity for the team to improve the offense game.

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“Everybody’s been in the gym because we haven't been shooting that well,” Duruji said. “So I think everybody was prepared. When we found out Colin wasn't playing, now it’s the next man up. We can't pout. We go out there and just play the game.”

Junior center Jason Jitoboh filled the void in the frontcourt and was welcomed with deafening decibels from the Rowdy Reptiles. Roars overtook the O’Dome every time the Abuja, Nigeria, native checked onto the floor, and amplified when Jitoboh made a fierce rejection over Bulldog guard Shakeel Moore.

“Mississippi State’s big, so we needed him,” Duruji said. “He stepped up and he made big plays down the stretch, so we were thankful for that.”

Jitoboh, who started his first game this season, finished the game with eight points and two blocks but did get into foul trouble, picking up four personals.

Florida displayed a level of grit reminiscent of its play during the six-game win streak to begin the season. Adapting to the absence of Castleton will remain to be a challenge until the Gators’ star is back to 100%. 

“We rallied. I thought we played with a lot of heart and a lot of toughness,” White said.

The Gators host an early afternoon matchup against the Vanderbilt Commodores inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Saturday. Tipoff is set for 1 p.m. and will broadcast on the SEC Network.

Contact Jesse Richardson at Follow him on Twitter @JesseRich352.

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