Florida senior center Jason Jitoboh fought for a rebound under the basket in the second half. Arkansas senior forward Makhel Mitchell came away with the ball after it slipped through Jitoboh’s hands.
Jitoboh held his head down as Mitchell made an uncontested jumper to push the Razorbacks’ lead to 19 and continue their second-half dominance.
The Florida Gators (14-13, 7-7 SEC) lost to the Arkansas Razorbacks (18-9, 7-7 SEC) 84-65 Saturday at the Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The Gators allowed the Razorbacks to shoot 58% from the field and struggled to keep up without their leading scorer, graduate student forward Colin Castleton. Florida came into Saturday holding opponents to 40.2% from the floor.
“The way that we’re going to have to win these games down the stretch is by putting together a full forty minutes of great effort as opposed to thirty out of forty,” Florida head coach Todd Golden said. “Especially in a game like this.”
The teams struggled to get any shots into the basket through the first two minutes of the game.
The Gators and Razorbacks struggled to get shots up. Jitoboh was stuffed, and he went up and down with the ball, which resulted in a turnover.
Mitchell made an easy layup after two and a half minutes of scoreless play to account for the first points of the game.
Florida did a majority of its work from the perimeter since Castleton was out of action with a broken hand. The Gators’ offense — which was adjusting to playing without Castleton — was slow to start; UF went 0-5 from the floor through the opening five minutes.
Florida’s young pair of guards — sophomore Will Richard and freshman Riley Kugel — attacked the basket to gain momentum after a lackluster start. Richard dunked the ball in stride on a fast break to give UF a 6-4 lead with 14 minutes remaining in the half.
The basket by Richard was part of a two-minute span of excellent shooting by Florida. The Gators went 4-5 from the field during the hot streak.
The Razorbacks responded with six straight points from the floor while they held Florida scoreless for nearly three minutes. Kugel knocked down two free throws with 10 minutes left in the half to end the drought.
The Gators’ transition offense pushed the ball down Arkansas’ throat despite the Razorbacks’ fast-paced offense, which Golden credited Friday. In one sequence, Gators sophomore forward Alex Fudge went coast-to-coast for a layup.
Florida failed to extend its lead because of the home team's dominance in the paint. Arkansas shot 15-27 in the first half but only 0-5 from behind the arc.
The rotation of Jitoboh and freshman forward Aleks Szymczyk was constantly attacked.
The German forward, who finished with a team-high six rebounds and four steals, said UF needed to be more disciplined in the post on both ends of the court.
“We have to block out and execute our plays better,” Szymczyk said.
A layup by Razorbacks junior guard Ricky Council IV — scored after he faked out two Gators in the paint — gave Arkansas a 25-23 lead with six and a half minutes remaining in the half.
The Razorbacks were unstoppable through a five-minute-long, 14-2 run in the midst of a Florida scoring slump. UF missed 10 shots from the floor until Richard made a layup to stop the skid.
The Razorbacks switched from full-court to half-court defense with three minutes left in the half. The Gators couldn’t adapt and failed to find their rhythm before halftime because of Arkansas’ adjustment.
Florida players were frequently fouled when they drove toward the rim, which created opportunities from the free-throw line. The Gators shot 12-16 from the charity stripe in the first half. The free throws kept Florida in the game; Arkansas led 37-31 at halftime.
Arkansas senior forward Jalen Graham — who finished with a career-high 26 points — went ballistic coming off the bench. He converted six of his first seven shots in the first half.
Florida’s offensive struggles continued in the beginning of the second half. The Razorbacks outscored UF 11-2 through the first four minutes.
Arkansas racked up points while the Gators’ looked like bodies with no souls. Szymczyk couldn’t contain a bounce pass in the paint. He turned the ball over, which resulted in a second-chance layup by Graham after Razorbacks freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. missed the initial shot.
Florida senior forward CJ Felder checked into the game midway through the half for his first minutes since Jan. 7.
Kugel made a jumper to awaken UF’s offense and bring Florida within 18. The fans erupted, and Golden called a timeout after Council IV threw down a one-handed slam.
The Razorbacks matched the Gators' punches after the timeout and split UF’s defense like a hot knife through butter.
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman brought freshman guard Anthony Black, who was resting on the bench with 12 points, back into the game. The move gave the Razorbacks fresh legs, and their offense went back to running through the gassed Gators.
The home team’s lead continued to build in the last three minutes, despite Florida’s full-court press.
With the writing on the wall, UF junior guard Niels Lane, freshman guard Denzel Aberdeen and junior guard Trey Bonham stepped onto the court for the closing minutes; Arkansas held onto its lead to win 84-65.
Florida will head back to Gainesville to prepare for its next game against the Kentucky Wildcats at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The game will be broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2.
Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.