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Friday, June 14, 2024

Gators’ late comeback falls short against Kentucky at home

Kugel scored a career-high 24 points in the defeat

Florida guard Riley Kugel takes a jump shot in the Gators' 82-74 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Kugel finished the game with a career-high 24 points.
Florida guard Riley Kugel takes a jump shot in the Gators' 82-74 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Kugel finished the game with a career-high 24 points.

The Gators needed a stop down by two in the final minute against the Kentucky Wildcats. 

UK guard Cason Wallace missed his 3-pointer, but forward Chris Livingston swooped in for the put-back shot and finished a three-point play. The Gators failed to bounce back and fell at home to their rivals. 

The Florida Gators (14-14, 7-8 SEC) were defeated by Kentucky (19-9, 10-5 SEC) 82-74 in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Wednesday night. The Wildcats completed the season sweep against the Gators.

UF shot 50% from the field and 40% from deep in the defeat. Gators freshman guard Riley Kugel scored a career-high 24 points on a 7-12 clip. 

Florida head coach Todd Golden was proud of Kugel, he said. 

The freshman guard was expected to assume a bigger role with graduate student forward Colin Castleton out, Golden said, and Kugel has done a good job stepping up to the challenge. 

“We need [Kugel] to be a complete player for us to win,” Golden said. “I thought he did a really good job that way.” 

Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe scored 25 points and shot 12-13 from the field. Four Wildcats players tallied double-digit points. Kentucky also outrebounded UF 40-21. 

Golden pointed to the team’s inability to rebound as the main reason they lost, he said. A win was the main goal, but he was still proud of his team’s play in the other areas of the game, he said.

“Everything else, we’re right there,” Golden said. “‘No moral victories’ is right, but our effort was pretty good.” 

The Wildcats went to work on the first possession after Tshiebwe nailed a long 2-pointer for the game’s first bucket. The 6-foot-9-inch forward dunked the ball on a later possession to give him four early points. 

Florida senior center Jason Jitoboh hit a floater to answer a Tshiebwe free throw. Sophomore guard Will Richard stole the ball but failed to finish in transition.

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The Wildcats attacked the Gators down low and started 5-6 shooting the ball. 

Kentucky guard Antonio Reeves connected on a triple after a timeout, but Florida sophomore guard Kowacie Reeves responded with a layup. Tshiebwe answered the layup with a contested mid-range jumper. 

Kowacie Reeves drained a 3-pointer from the top of the arc for the Gators' first triple of the game.

Kugel and Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin traded triples midway through the first half. Toppin attacked the cup on the next play and scored to push Kentucky’s lead to double digits. 

Kowacie Reeves cocked the ball back for a tomahawk dunk to give him seven early points. Tshiebwe and Antonio Reeves followed the play with back-to-back baskets. 

Florida graduate student guard Kyle Lofton scored a reverse layup against Tshiebwe, and Kugel made a fast-break layup to cut into the lead. Graduate student guard Myreon Jones buried a three to finish a 7-0 run and force a Kentucky timeout. 

Jitoboh made a floater a few possessions later to continue UF’s run and cut the deficit to six. Kugel caught a rebound after Kentucky missed a three and found Richard for a transition layup. 

Lofton raced to the rim and scored a layup as the O’Dome crowd erupted. Toppin finished a layup to end a 13-0 Gators run. Tshiebwe buried another mid-range jumper to put the Wildcats back up by six. 

Kowacie Reeves rushed down the court and dunked the ball to keep pace with Kentucky. Kugel caught the ball at the top of the arc and drained a 3-pointer to pull his team within two late in the first half. 

Kugel buried a triple with a defender in his face to give Florida its first lead of the game. The Gators scored nine straight points to end the first half and lead the Wildcats at halftime, 37-36. 

The freshman guard finished 4-6 from 3-point range. The game is slowing down for Kugel and he’s been able to get to his spots easier as the season progresses, he said. 

“I’m starting to feel real comfortable with the game,” Kugel said. 

UF shot 54% from the field and 42% from beyond the arc in the first half. Kentucky went on a three-minute-long scoring drought toward the end of the half. 

Toppin dunked the ball to start the second half. Kugel found an opening and raced to the rim for a dunk on the next play. The Wildcats and Gators traded baskets early in the half to keep the game close. 

Kentucky drilled five of its first six shots to take a seven-point lead early in the half. Kugel pulled up from deep and hit a 3-pointer to end a streak of six unanswered Wildcats points. Kowacie Reeves rose up for a dunk and drew a foul to head to the charity stripe. 

Kowacie Reeves hit both shots to bring Florida back within two. UF junior guard Niels Lane drove to the basket and drew a goaltending call through a foul. Lane converted the three-point play to give Florida a one-point lead. 

Antonio Reeves answered Lane’s score with a triple. Lane hit a floater to pull the Gators within striking distance. Tshiebwe battled down low against Jitoboh, scored through contact, and finished a three-point play. 

Lane grabbed a Kentucky miss, rushed down the court, and finished a tough layup. He hit a free throw to complete the and-one after he drew a foul on the shot. Kowacie Reeves pulled up from beyond the arc and connected on his shot to tie the game at 59. 

Livingston caught a pass from Tshiebwe and scored a layup to end a 6-0 Gators run. 

Tshiebwe drained a hook shot over Jitoboh to stretch Kentucky’s lead to eight in the midst of a three-minute-long Florida scoring drought. Jitoboh caught the ball on the next possession and scored through contact to end the Wildcats' run. 

Toppin hit a 3-pointer after a UF turnover to force Golden to call a timeout. Antonio Reeves stole the ball after the timeout and threw a lob to Toppin, who dunked the ball to extend Kentucky’s lead to 11. 

Kugel drew a foul on a 3-point attempt and sank all three free throws to keep Florida in the game. Richard pulled up from the top of the arc to cut the Wildcats’ lead to four with less than two minutes left. 

Lofton hit a pair of free throws to make it a two-point game with a minute left. Wallace missed a three on the next possession, but Livingston cut underneath the basket, snatched the rebound, and finished the put-back. 

Kentucky outscored UF 15-0 in second-chance points. 

Livingston drew a foul and completed a three-point play. Lane threw up a floater, but it missed, and the Gators were forced to foul. The Wildcats hit their free throws and closed out the game.

Even though UF lost the game, the close result continued to prove the team can compete with top competition without Castleton, Kowacie Reeves said. 

“We’ve proven that we can go toe-to-toe with any team, so it was no surprise when we came back in the game,” Kowacie Reeves said. 

Florida will travel to Nashville, Tennessee, for a rematch with the Vanderbilt Commodores Saturday. The game will tip off at 6 p.m. and be broadcast on ESPN 2. 

Contact Jackson Reyes at Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.

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Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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