The 2022-2023 Florida basketball team ended its season on the Billy Donovan Court as the final buzzer sounded Wednesday. “UCF” chants blasted throughout the stadium while the in-state rival Knights celebrated their underdog victory.
The Gators walked off defeated. A season with national tournament expectations ended with a loss in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament.
The Florida Gators (16-17, 9-9 SEC) lost to the Central Florida Knights (19-14, 8-10 AAC) 67-49 in their first-round matchup of the NIT Wednesday at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The Gators shot 16.7% from behind the arc and allowed UCF to knock down 40% of its own triples.
The Gators led for only five and a half minutes throughout the entire game.
“Nothing much to it,” Florida freshman guard Riley Kugel said. “We just got outcompeted.”
Florida’s in-state contest started with something Gators head coach Todd Golden emphasized Tuesday afternoon — rebounds. UF senior center Jason Jitoboh corralled an offensive rebound and set graduate student guard Myreon Jones up for a 3-pointer.
Florida’s guards quickly took control with their offense. Three Gators ball handlers scored UF’s first nine points. Freshman guard Riley Kugel drilled a stepback triple while he was fouled to contribute to the hot start.
The Knights shifted their defense to a full-court press and came away with four steals in the opening five minutes to keep the game close early.
Central Florida freshman forward Taylor Hendricks made a 3-pointer to tie the game at nine apiece six minutes into the game.
Hendricks — a potential future first round pick in the 2023 National Basketball Association Draft — took a majority of UCF’s shots in the first half. The Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, product scored 13 of his 17 points in the half.
Florida head coach Todd Golden was impressed by Hendrick’s poise, pace and overall feel for the game, he said.
“He plays within himself,” Golden said. “Wish I got the Florida job here earlier — maybe we would’ve recruited him a little bit harder to get him up here.”
The Gators went on a four-minute scoring slump. The Knights, on the other hand, took advantage with a 9-0 run in the same span.
Turnovers were a big reason for UF’s offensive struggles. Central Florida scored seven points off those turnovers through 10 minutes.
Florida dropped to a six-point deficit halfway through the half and looked to its bench for answers. The solution didn’t come in time to stop a five-minute, 15-2 Central Florida run.
Gators graduate student guard Kyle Lofton threw the ball into the hands of UCF senior guard C.J. Kelly, who dunked the ball on the other side of the court to give the Knights a 22-14 lead. Golden called a timeout with six and a half minutes left before the break to try to keep the game within reach.
Golden pushed Florida’s defense up the court to play full-court press. This forced UCF into two turnovers and gave the Gators chances for points in transition. UF went on a 7-0 run through two and a half minutes.
The Knights woke up on offense with back-to-back baskets. UCF redshirt senior forward Lahat Thioune hit a layup under the rim to put Central Florida up 30-21 four minutes before halftime.
Kelly hit a triple three minutes later to give the Knights a double-digit lead, 35-24.
Jones ended the half with a missed 3-pointer off the right side of the basket; UCF led 35-26 at the break. Florida shot 9-28 from the floor and 3-15 from behind the arc in the half.
Florida came out aggressive on defense to start the second half. Jones stole the ball and handed the rock to Jitoboh for an easy jumper on UF’s first offensive possession of the half.
The Gators continued to press the full length of the court on defense, but the Knights evaded them with multiple quick passes to set up good shot selections near the basket.
Each pass kept Florida players’ heads on a swivel as they chased the Knights across the floor. UF endured a two-minute scoring drought during the stretch.
Hendricks finished with a two-handed jam into the rim on a fastbreak to give Central Florida a 41-30 lead with 17 minutes left.
UCF went 5-9 from the floor through the first seven minutes of the second half; UF went 3-11.
The fans in the O’Dome groaned with every missed Florida basket. The Gators didn’t score for five minutes until UF junior guard Niels Lane got an easy layup right by the rim.
Florida’s season seemed near its end as the second half approached the halfway point. The Knights dropped their defensive coverage to a 3-2 zone and closed off the paint from the Gators.
Florida sophomore guard Kowacie Reeves looked to finish a poster-worthy dunk on Hendricks, but he was denied at the rim. The 6-foot-9-inch forward used one hand to stop Reeves in motion.
UF swapped Lane, Reeves and sophomore forward Alex Fudge back and forth in an effort to slow the Knights’ offense.
Florida sophomore guard Will Richard lobbed the ball to Lane for a dunk on a fastbreak following a steal.
However, no matter who UF put on the floor, it couldn’t stop the Knights.
Kelly used an array of moves to create space against Fudge and took the 6-foot-9-inch sophomore inside. Kelly finished his layup to push UCF’s lead to more than 20 points. Central Florida led 64-43 with two and a half minutes remaining.
Gators freshman guard Denzel Aberdeen finished the game in place of Lofton.
Central Florida went on to win 67-49. The victory marked UCF’s first win in Gainesville since 2010.
Lofton — who played a total of 5,427 minutes in his five-year collegiate basketball career — ended his career Wednesday, and Florida lost the final game of its season.
The loss gave the Gators their second losing season of the century.
Golden was disappointed with the result of this season and Florida’s effort against the Knights to end the year, he said. However, the team grew throughout the season despite the loss of graduate student forward Colin Castleton and its fights against the “blue bloods” of the sport.
“This team did a lot of things they should be proud of,” Golden said.
Contact Brandon Hernandez at email@example.com. 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.