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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Florida completes comeback in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge

The Gators erased a 16-point deficit to claim victory over the Cowboys.

Florida's Tyree Appleby pictured during a Nov. 14 game against Florida State
Florida's Tyree Appleby pictured during a Nov. 14 game against Florida State

Colin Castleton has made one thing clear during his last few games glued to the Gators sidelines: he misses basketball. 

The All-SEC center missed his fifth consecutive game Saturday due to a shoulder injury as Florida hosted Oklahoma State. 

Although injured, the big man was far from inactive. Castleton, donning a grey sweatsuit and a pair of Air Forces rather than his usual gameday getup, paced the court all 40 minutes, jeering at the on-court action and even joining in on the Rowdy Reptiles “Airball” chant. His teammates took that energy and applied it all on the court Saturday. 

Florida (13-8) beat Oklahoma State (10-10) 81-72 in a statement comeback win with possible tournament implications. Despite the recent struggles both on the court and injury report, the Gators looked impressive after falling behind early in the game. 

Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton did not mince words in his summary of Saturday’s contest.

“Whatever Mike White said to his team at halftime was a lot better than what I said,” Boynton claimed. “We got what we deserved.”

The first half was all Cowboys. 

Florida was unable to defend any kind of shot from an Oklahoma State roster that features two former five-star recruits in Bryce Thompson and Moussa Cisse. The ‘Pokes shot 19-30 from the floor and 7-10 from behind the arc in the first period and led by as many as 16 points in the opening 20 minutes.

The Gators, on the other hand, struggled once again to find the bottom of the basket. 

Beyond the initial nine points from freshman Kowacie Reeves and graduate transfer Brandon McKissic, Florida looked lost offensively. An abysmal 25% 3-point percentage paired with six turnovers is not the recipe for success that Mike White’s squad was looking for Saturday. 

The absence of Castelton, followed by junior Jason Jitoboh after he was declared out for the season Friday, were apparent on both sides of the ball. Florida struggled to defend and score on the interior, allowing 20 points in the paint compared to its own eight in the first half. Prior to their injuries, Castleton was a double-double machine and Jitoboh recorded a career-high 10 rebounds in a loss to Ole Miss.

“Nobody likes to be called soft, but we played soft in the first half,” White said. “We just did.” 

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Florida entered the locker room down 45-32. The atmosphere of the Stephen C. O’Connell center went from electric pre-tip to melancholic at the break. Before talk of turning the game around could begin, the Gators first needed to figure out how to stop the bleeding. 

Florida came out firing, intent on leaving the first half behind them. The Gators sparked a 8-0 run and forced three turnovers in the first five minutes of second half play. Oklahoma State was troubled by 13 second half points from Tyree Appleby, who was a major contributor in mounting the comeback effort. The senior finished with 21 points on 50% shooting.

The moment many in the crowd were waiting for arrived at the 8:37 mark as the Gators went ahead on a corner three from Myreon Jones. The arena was immediately on its feet, and Florida walked with elevated swagger up 58-56 out of an Oklahoma State timeout. 

The energy of the team was then diverged to the defensive end. Florida recorded six blocks in the second half and stacked 15 points off turnovers. Oklahoma State went on a three minute scoring drought before knocking down a free throw and making it a one possession game. Florida also got their work done at the charity stripe Saturday, making 33 foul shots.

With one minute remaining, UF was in a full-court press, unrelenting in its fight to maintain the lead. Thompson was giving his best effort to reignite his team’s offense by scoring on the perimeter and pushing Oklahoma State into the bonus, but a 12th second-half turnover in the closing moments all but sealed the Cowboys’ fate. 

The win comes at a critical point for Florida, who have struggled thus far in the midst of conference play. Saturday’s victory means the Gators will likely remain on the tournament bubble, which could be propelled into a postseason appearance if the remainder of their SEC slate goes smoothly. 

“I told the guys I probably have more admiration for their fight because of what happened in the first half,” White said. “We just didn’t respond at all. We were fortunate to have that second half.”

After the quick break for the SEC-Big 12 challenge, Florida returns to conference play against Mizzou Wednesday, Feb. 2 at 9:00 p.m.

Contact Jackson Castellano at Find him on Twitter @jaxacastellano.

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Jackson Castellano

Jackson Castellano is a second-year sports journalism student and the assistant sports editor at the Alligator. In the past, he has covered UF basketball and baseball for the Alligator and was an associate editor at ClutchPoints.

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