The Florida Gators entered their contest with the Stetson Hatters missing one key contributor: starting point guard Kyle Lofton.
Lofton, who leads the Gators in assists and minutes per game, donned sweats and a t-shirt as he sat out with what’s described as a day-to-day injury.
Despite the veteran floor general’s absence, the UF offense seemed to be in good hands on the way to a convincing victory over the Hatters.
Florida (6-3) defeated Stetson (4-3) 89-51 Sunday. Five Gators tallied double-digit points in the win, as sophomore guard Will Richard led the way with 14 points.
“This is the first time this year where I felt like ‘Okay, this is what our team should look like,’” UF head coach Todd Golden said.
The first 2:29 of the game had no points to offer for either team. Both groups exchanged possessions featuring offensive fouls, airballed shots and mindless turnovers. Sophomore guard Kowacie Reeves broke the stalemate with two foul shots.
At a television timeout with five minutes gone in the first half, the score was just 4-2 in UF’s advantage. The teams shared five turnovers and four fouls already in the scrappy start.
Florida took advantage of Stetson’s nine first half turnovers, scoring eight points in transition.
Despite UF picking up a six-point advantage thanks to some buckets inside by sophomore forward Alex Fudge, the Hatters eventually tied the game at eight points with some free throws. Richard would put the Gators back up, 11-3, with 11:59 remaining in the first half after knocking down a 3-pointer from the wing.
That shot helped envigorate Florida and add some momentum to its play.
Senior forward CJ Felder strong-armed a dunk in the paint, followed by a Richard 3-pointer that brought the Stephen C. O'Connell Center crowd to its feet. Felder forced another dunk inside the following possession to take a 18-8 lead with under 10 minutes to go in the first half.
Stetson found its own rhythm out of the second media timeout. The Hatters swung the ball around, looking for efficient shots at the rim or beyond the arc. They brought the game within three points, but the Gators stayed hot and in control.
Richard knocked down his third shot from distance in the first half to take a 23-15 lead with 6:00 remaining in the first half.
The game slowed to a halt before the Gators went on the attack once more in the final 2:30 of the first half. UF went on an 8-0 run to close the half, including five points at the line. As both teams headed into the locker room, Florida led 33-23.
Richard led the way in points with nine at the half. Fifth-year big man Colin Castleton finished the first with a team-high three assists. Fudge was on top of the boards with six rebounds.
Reeves and Trey Bonham splashed back-to-back 3-pointers to open the second half and take a 39-22 lead. Castleton began to dominate in the paint, including an emphatic under basket slam. Another tough finish through contact plus the foul put the Gators up 49-26 with 15:21 left in the game.
Florida continued to find efficient shots all over the floor while Stetson struggled to keep up. The Gators shot 10-for-12 out of the locker room, capped off by a Myreon Jones 3-pointer to take a 61-33 lead with just more than 11 minutes to go.
UF cruised to the finish line in the last 10 minutes of play as the Hatters never seriously challenged the Gators after halftime. The ease of victory is best described by center Jason Jitoboh hitting his first career 3-pointer in the closing minutes.
“We got a stretch five,” Fudge said.
The win makes it two in a row for the Gators after returning from an up-and-down Phil Knight Legacy in Portland, Oregon.
Next up, the Gators will take on the Connecticut Huskies at home Wednesday. The Huskies are 9-0 for the first time since the 2013-2014 season, when they won the NCAA National Championship. UConn notably handed Florida two of its three losses that season, including a 63-53 victory over UF in the Final Four. The Huskies lost their tenth game to Stanford that season.
“Defensively, if we can carry this over to UConn and play like this all 40 minutes, it shouldn’t be a problem at all,” Fudge said.
Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Jackson Castellano is a junior sports media journalism student at UF and the Senior News Director at The Alligator for Fall 2023. In the past, he's served as the Sports Editor, Assistant Sports Editor and a Sports Reporter covering Football, Men's basketball and Baseball.