The Florida Gators are quickly establishing their national brand as a defensive power. They’ve held opponents to less than 40% from the floor through 10 of their last 12 games.
Florida followed up its win against Missouri Jan. 14 with a two-game road trip. It went into the stretch with a three-game winning streak.
However, wins haven’t come easy for UF.
The Gators (11-8, SEC 4-3) won one of the two games — each being decided by two points. They’re ranked 13th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
Florida started the trip in College Station, Texas, against the Texas A&M Aggies Jan. 18. This was the second meeting between the teams.
Graduate student guard Myreon Jones — who made his first start of the season — hit a 3-pointer three and a half minutes through the game after Florida shot 0-5 to start.
The offense spiraled after that.
The first half marked the Gators’ worst shooting performance so far this season. They went 2-26 from the field against TAMU through 16 minutes of play.
UF trailed 23-12 at halftime; it shot 7.7% and made only one of 11 shots from behind the arc.
“We were getting the looks we wanted,” Jones said. “Missing shots killed us, so in the second half, we had to make a bigger run than we should have.”
Florida flipped the script in the second half and went on a 7-0 run midway through the half to bring the deficit to single digits.
Gators head coach Todd Golden said his message to the team was to be aggressive in the final half and not to be afraid to fail.
“I thought our attitude and our mentality was better that way in the second half,” Golden said. “We still weren’t that efficient, but we scored 40 points in the second half, so obviously, we were a lot better.”
The Gators steadily climbed back, outscoring Texas A&M 37-27 through 19 and a half minutes. A 3-pointer by freshman guard Riley Kugel brought Florida within one point.
Gators sophomore forward Alex Fudge fouled Texas A&M sophomore guard Wade Taylor IV to send him to the free-throw line with less than 30 seconds remaining.
Taylor made both free throws, and the Aggies led by 54-49. UF graduate student forward Colin Castleton got blocked from behind by TAMU junior forward Andersson Garcia under the basket. Garcia threw an outlet pass to wide-open senior guard Tyrece Radford to extend the Aggies’ lead to six.
Florida still had a chance to tie or win the game after TAMU turned the ball over but was unable to capitalize on the opportunity.
Florida inbounded the ball to Jones nearly 30 feet away from the basket. He was double-teamed by the Aggies, forcing him to shoot a heavily contested shot. The game ended, and UF lost 54-52.
The Gators shot 26.2% from the floor — its worst field goal percentage in a game all season. Texas A&M shot 35.5% from the field.
Golden said both teams have an identity of defending and being physical, so both squads found it hard to score.
“Buckets are hard to come by,” Golden said. “That leads to these low-scoring, grind-it-out kind of games where you can make two field goals in the first half and still be in the ball game.”
Florida traveled to Starkville, Mississippi, to finish the road trip and face off against the Mississippi State Bulldogs Saturday.
The matchup was headlined by the battle between Castleton and MSU redshirt senior forward Tolu Smith. The two 6-foot-11-inch forwards clashed throughout the entire game.
The Gators’ ball movement at the top of the key created open shots past the perimeter. UF finished the first half with 10 assists and went 5-12 from three. It averages 12.2 assists per game.
UF held the Bulldogs to 34% shooting and didn’t allow a 3-pointer on five attempts early in the half.
Mississippi State, however, closed in on Florida’s lead. It scored seven unanswered points before halftime to keep the deficit in the single-digits; the Gators led 33-24.
Florida executed poorly on offense after Fudge hit his head on the court. The forward was taken out of the game, while the Bulldogs climbed back into the game.
Mississippi State followed seven straight Florida points with a 9-1 run itself.
Florida led 61-59 with 43 seconds remaining. MSU forward Cameron Matthew threw the ball out of bounds with a chance to tie the game.
The Gators missed an opportunity to ice the game when Kugel launched an unsuccessful 3-point attempt. They found themselves defending on the last possession of the game to save the game.
The Bulldogs attempted two shots from under the basket with 11 seconds left. Castleton contested both shots, and the Gators won the game 61-59. It marked Florida's first win in Starkville since 2017.
Castleton expected Mississippi State to attack the basket and wanted to be a presence at the rim, he said.
“I think I hit the ball four times,” Castleton said. “They got the offensive rebound, and I just tried to hit it as hard as I could to get it away until the clock hit zero.”
The victory against Mississippi State marks the Gators’ 1,500th win in program history.
The Gators held the Bulldogs to 39% from the floor. Mississippi State became Florida’s 10th opponent in its last 12 games to shoot less than 40% from the floor.
UF will return home to host the South Carolina Gamecocks at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Contact Brandon Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BranH2001.
Brandon Hernandez is a student at the University of Florida studying journalism. He is a writer for The Alligator, Gator Country and for PlugTalkSports. You can find most of his work on his Twitter (BranH2001) and on his podcast, “The Courtside Podcast,” on Spotify.