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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Riley Kugel continues to shine while UF struggles

Florida freshman guard Riley Kugel has broke career high twice

Guard Riley Kugel shoots the ball in an 81-60 victory against the South Carolina Gamecocks Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.
Guard Riley Kugel shoots the ball in an 81-60 victory against the South Carolina Gamecocks Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023.

Freshman guard Riley Kugel found himself behind the 3-point arc against Stony Brook at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Nov. 7. 

He knocked the shot down for his first shot ever made in a collegiate game. Four months later, the Orlando native is becoming one of Florida’s most impactful players.

The freshman guard has come into his own in Florida’s rotation since scoring zero points against Florida State Nov. 18. Kugel has steadily progressed his production on offense — his average for points per game grew from 2.8 points to 7.4 since UF’s game against the Owls.

Coming off a 2021 7A Florida State Championship with fellow Gators’ teammate freshman guard Denzel Aberdeen at Dr. Phillips High School, Kugel is playing more minutes than the typical first-year.

Kugel started the past six games for UF and set new career highs, all within less than a month. The Gators are 4-5 this season when he’s in the starting rotation.

The freshman is described as a guard who has all the tools of an impactful player, according to the UF’s main website, and he continues to develop his game on the court.

Kugel played more efficiently in the Gators’ most recent games, said Florida head coach Todd Golden. He’s been figuring out where to pick his spots on the court on offense and how to be aggressive, he said.

“I think he’s done a great job growing throughout the season,” Golden said. “His numbers in the league have been fantastic.”

Kugel has averaged 9.2 points, and 3.5 rebounds per game in Southeastern Conference play this season. He’s shot 50% from the field and 35.5% from 3-point range.

Kugel’s career-high in points was 13, which he scored against then-No. 20 Missouri Jan. 14, before his matchups against No. 3 Alabama Feb. 8 and Vanderbilt Feb. 11.

His ball-handling skills created opportunities for open shots against the Crimson Tide. He used his explosiveness to his advantage when he attacked the basket.

The 6-foot-5-inch guard scored UF’s first points of the game against Alabama. Kugel crossed Crimson Tide freshman forward Noah Clowney and made a mid-range jumper.

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Kugel and graduate student forward Colin Castleton scored on alternating possessions. Castleton finished with 29 points and was the only Gator with more points than Kugel.

The freshman guard played a career-high 36 minutes against the No. 3 Crimson Tide and shot 54.5% from the floor. Florida lost to Alabama in a lopsided defeat, 97-69, but Kugel claimed a career-high 15 points. He also corralled a career-high six rebounds.

His game against Vanderbilt started with 11 straight minutes of basketball; no whistle to stop play was called until a media timeout.

Kugel scored six points through that time span — all coming from jumpers.

After Kugel’s shots began to miss, he started to attack the rim throughout the game.

In one possession, the 207-pound guard ran toward Commodores fifth-year forward Liam Robbins, who was waiting under the basket for the Gators’ guard. Kugel skied up into the air and paused for what felt like a second to avoid the seven-footer.

He underhanded the ball mid-layup and scored. He continued to attack the rim throughout the game.

UF was neck-to-neck throughout the game until the final five minutes of regulation against Vanderbilt. Mental and physical fatigue from the fast-paced game slowed Florida down offensively, Golden said.

Triples devastated the Gators on both sides of the court. The Commodores converted 12-23 shots from behind the arc, while Florida shot just 2-20. Kugel contributed to the Gators' struggles and went 0-4 from three.

UF lost 88-80. However, Kugel, once again, scored another career-high of 18 points. The number tied with the total points scored by Florida’s bench. He shot 8-14 from the field, which are career highs for him in shots attempted and made.

The Gators’ starting lineup this season has changed more than a queen’s guard changing shifts throughout a day's work. A total of seven different starting fives have graced a hardwood court this season.

Kugel’s starts have stopped a recent transition of UF two-guards from switching back-and-forth with one another in the starting lineup.

Florida looks to finish its last six games of the season strong with a spot in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament on the line. Three of UF’s final games are at home.

Florida’s next game will be against Ole Miss in the O’Dome at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Kugel is expected to start.

Contact Brandon Hernandez at bhernandez@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @BranH2001.

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Brandon Hernandez

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.


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