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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Florida hangs on to pick up first conference victory

The Gators managed to grab an important win away from home against South Carolina.

<p>Florida&#x27;s Phlandrous Fleming matches up against Florida State&#x27;s Matthew Cleveland during a Nov. 14 game. </p>

Florida's Phlandrous Fleming matches up against Florida State's Matthew Cleveland during a Nov. 14 game.

“Road Wins are hard to come by, period.” 

Florida head coach Mike White sat at the microphone postgame with looks of pride and relief on his face. 

After a historically bad start for the Gators in conference play, UF held on for their first SEC win of the season. 

Florida (10-6, 1-3) defeated South Carolina (10-6, 1-3) 71-62 to avoid their first 0-4 start in the SEC since 1951. Led by a 14 point scoring outburst from freshman Kowacie Reeves and a career-high eight blocks from senior star Colin Castleton, the Gators fought to the bitter end against a Gamecock team that wouldn’t stay out of the fight. 

The Gators locked down immediately, forcing a shot-clock violation on the opening possession of the game. 

Guards Phlandrous Fleming Jr. and Reeves made impacts right away scoring Florida’s first five points. Fleming would finish with 14 to match the leading total on a highly efficient 50% shooting performance. 

“It really felt good to get a team win and to just get back to ourselves like the beginning of the season,” Reeves said. 

Florida’s shooting experienced a resurgence early after finishing 7-31 from the field Wednesday vs. Louisiana State. The Gators proceeded to go on a 9-0 run with 12:03 left in the first, capped off by a corner three from freshman Elijah Kennedy before South Carolina could respond on a midrange jumper.

After 10 minutes, Florida led by 11 and had made 57.1% of their shots, getting an even distribution of scoring at all three levels. On the defensive end, Florida held the Gamecocks to just 33.3% from the floor. 

“We’re just putting more pressure on ourselves defensively,” Reeves said. “And challenged ourselves as a team to get our edge back and that same physicality all together.”

White’s squad led by 13 with just over four minutes remaining in the half, but things began to slow down after a missed dunk from Florida guard Tyree Appleby and a 3-pointer from South Carolina guard Devin Carter on the other end. 

The Gamecocks closed  the half on an 11-5 scoring run, and Florida led by just eight points at the intermission, 36-28. The Gators’ shooting stayed hot through the first at the 50% mark. 

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It wouldn’t be all smooth sailing for Florida, however, as South Carolina entered the second half looking much more energized. The teams traded baskets back and forth out of the break, but an 0-6 skid from Florida at the 11 minute mark dwindled the Gators’ lead to just four. 

Florida picked up the energy from there, propelled by two mean dunks by junior C.J. Felder. The Sumter, South Carolina, native threw one down  on the baseline over the Gamecock defense. The other finished off a lob from guard Brandon McKissic.

With 4:30 left in the game Fleming made his impact known again. The Charleston Southern transfer nailed a step-back from deep three-point territory putting the Gators up 13 and extinguishing a Gamecocks’ run.

South Carolina wouldn’t let the game go, going on an 8-2 run to bring the game within two possessions  with just over a minute on the clock. The effort would turn out to be too little, too late after a miraculous rebound from Reeves opened up the free-throw game late. 

“I thought we got really casual late,” White said. “We’ve got to finish a little better. But defensively for the most part, we didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”

The Gators finished with a 55.1% field goal percentage, complimented by a plus-seven advantage in assists over the Gamecocks. Florida spent just 17 seconds trailing from buzzer to buzzer.

An escape from Colonial Life Arena left the Gators with some new-found perspective after ending a nightmarish 0-3 start to conference play.

“This is a team that never experienced what they experienced when we were 6-0,” White said. “Are we back to that identity? I'm not saying that, but I thought we were pretty good today. A lot of those things we were doing early when we were having a lot of success, I saw today.”

Florida takes on the Mississippi State Bulldogs Wednesday, Jan 19 at 6:30 p.m. in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

Contact Jackson Castellano at jcastellano@alligator.org. Find him on Twitter @jaxacastellano.

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