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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Golden, Gators carry momentum into Southeastern Conference Tournament

Florida won its last two regular season games

Guard Riley Kugel shoots the ball against Louisiana State in a 79-67 victory Saturday, March 4, 2023.
Guard Riley Kugel shoots the ball against Louisiana State in a 79-67 victory Saturday, March 4, 2023.

The Gators men’s basketball team sat below .500 after a deflating three-game losing streak. 

Florida rallied and won its last two games of the season to finish with a winning record in head coach Todd Golden’s first season at the helm. UF now turns to the Southeastern Conference Tournament with the regular season officially over. 

The Florida Gators (16-15, 9-9 SEC) finished eighth in the SEC and will take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs (20-11, 8-10 SEC) in their first matchup of the conference tournament in Nashville, Tennessee. 

Golden’s Gators were marred with inconsistencies and fell off the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament bubble as the season concluded. Florida went 4-6 in its last 10 games, but Golden was satisfied with how his team finished the regular season, he said.

“I’m really proud of our team, our program,” Golden said. 

The Gators were without graduate student forward Colin Castleton for their final five games and went 2-3 without their star forward. Castleton suffered a broken hand against the Ole Miss Rebels Feb. 15 and is out for the SEC Tournament. 

Florida went on a three-game losing streak after Castleton went down, but won its last two against the Georgia Bulldogs and Louisiana State Tigers. 

Golden acknowledged the hill his team had to climb after the injury, he said. The team could have checked out and become complacent, but players like graduate student guards Kyle Lofton and Myreon Jones helped UF uphold its high standard, he said. 

“It says a lot about their resiliency as a group but also where we’re headed as a program,” Golden said. “We’re not going to be OK just getting to the finish line.” 

The Gators have had to make up for Castleton’s production. The graduate student forward led UF in points, rebounds and blocks. 

Florida freshman guard Riley Kugel has stepped up in Castleton’s absence. Kugel scored in double figures in his last eight games and is averaging 18.3 points per game during the stretch. 

The Orlando native has scored efficiently also. Kugel finished with a shooting percentage of more than 50% in six of his last eight games. He scored 21 points in the Gator’s regular-season finale on an 8-14 clip. 

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UF sophomore guard Will Richard also improved his play through the last two games. The Belmont transfer scored a career-high 24 points against Georgia in the Gators’ last road matchup of the regular season Feb. 28. 

Richard lit the Bulldogs up from deep and finished 5-8 from beyond the arc and 8-11 overall. He followed up the career game with an 18-point performance against LSU March 4. He finished 7-10 from the field and 3-6 from 3-point range. 

The Gators’ last two games were representative of how they’ve gotten more adjusted to playing without Castleton, Richard said. There was an initial struggle after Castleton went down, but they’ve adapted well over time, he said. 

“It was definitely a big adjustment for us because he does so much for us, but after the time we have without him, I definitely think we are more comfortable,” Richard said.

The pair of guards will need to continue their efficient play into the SEC Tournament to keep Florida’s NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The Gators are not on the bubble and will need to win the conference tournament to clinch an automatic bid into the tournament. 

Mississippi State will be UF’s first matchup in the win-or-go-home tournament. The Bulldogs lost their final game of the regular season to the Vanderbilt Commodores 77-72 March 4 to finish ninth in the SEC.

Florida and Mississippi State played earlier in the regular season Jan. 21. The Gators traveled to Starkville, Mississippi, and took down the Bulldogs 61-59. 

The first matchup between the two teams came down to the final possession. Mississippi State redshirt senior forward Will McNair Jr. drove to the basket with a chance to tie the game, but Castleton contested the shot and forced a miss to secure a UF win. 

The Bulldogs are 3-2 in their last five games. Mississippi State went to overtime twice through that span and went 1-1 in those two games. 

Bulldogs redshirt senior forward Tolu Smith is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. The 6-foot-11-inch forward averages 15.4 and 8.3 rebounds per game. 

Smith finished with a double-double the last time he played the Gators. He scored 12 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Castleton slowed Smith down, though, and held him to just 33% shooting the ball. 

Without Castleton, Smith will look to take advantage of the Gators’ undersized starting lineup. Florida’s starting five in its final regular season game featured four guards and senior center Jason Jitoboh. 

Smith could cause issues for a Gators squad that has failed to protect the paint without Castleton. Florida surrendered 52 points in the paint to Arkansas Feb. 18 and then 46 to Kentucky Feb. 22. 

The Gators will carry a two-game win streak into the SEC Tournament, but their momentum will be tested by Smith and Mississippi State. 

Florida will head to Nashville, Tennessee, to play Mississippi State March 9. The game will tip off at 1 p.m. and be broadcast on SEC Network. 

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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