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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Florida falls short against Baylor in high-scoring duel

Bears hit 14 3-pointers in the NIT Season Tip-Off championship

Sophomore guard Riley Kugel attempts a jumper in the Gators' 89-68 win against the Florida State Seminoles on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.
Sophomore guard Riley Kugel attempts a jumper in the Gators' 89-68 win against the Florida State Seminoles on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

Baylor nursed a five-point lead with less than two minutes to play. Florida needed a stop to have a chance to secure a massive early-season win. The possession came down to Bears guard RayJ Dennis.

The senior worked into the post and shot a fadeaway late in the shot clock. Dennis — who finished with a team-high 24 points — nailed the shot to close out the win in a high-scoring tournament finale.

The Florida Gators (4-2) fell to the No. 13 Baylor Bears (6-0) 95-91 in the championship of the NIT Season Tip-Off at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. 

Baylor shot 14-25 from three-point range in the win. While Florida’s offense did its best to stay within striking distance, the Bears’ offense couldn’t miss from outside. Guard Jaylen Bridges led the way from the perimeter as he made five of his seven three-pointers.

Gators sophomore guard Riley Kugel led the team with a career-high 25 points. Four Gators scored in double figures, including Kugel. UF struggled to shoot the ball from the perimeter, however. The Gators converted on just eight of their 24 three-pointers in the loss.

Florida started with authority. The Gators roared to a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes and forced Baylor head coach Scott Drew to call an early timeout. The Bears found offense after the stoppage, and Jalen Bridges hit a triple to cut the lead to 11-8.

UF senior guard Walter Clayton Jr. turned the ball over near the 3-point line, and Dennis scored in transition to cut the lead to one. Guard Ja’Kobe Walter drilled a 2-point jumper to tie the game at 14 six minutes into the game.

Walter heaved up a contested shot as the shot clock expired, but Clayton fouled the Bears’ guard. Walter hit both free throws to give Baylor its first lead of the night. 

Florida sophomore guard Denzel Aberdeen attacked the rim but couldn't drain his floater attempt. Bears guard Langston Love responded with a wide-open 3-pointer to continue a dominant Baylor run.

Gators graduate student guard Zyon Pullin drew a foul and hit one of two free throws to pause a dominant 14-1 Bears run. 

Love scored at the rim to continue the run and push Baylor’s lead to 24-15. Kugel blew by his defender for a layup to get the Gators’ first field goal in almost six minutes. Clayton missed a triple but secured his own rebound for another Florida layup.

Kugel continued the Gators’ resurgent run with a pull-up triple to make it a five-point game. Freshman forward Thomas Haugh drew a foul on a layup attempt, and he made both shots at the charity stripe to make it a three-point game.

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Bridges answered with his third triple of the game to stop Florida’s run. He hit another three to push Baylors’ lead back to nine. The Bears’ lights-out shooting continued when Love hit a triple to give Baylor an 11-point lead.

The Gators struggled to consistently score, but they stayed within striking distance through the end of the first half. Kugel made the extra pass to junior guard Will Richard in the corner, and the Belmont transfer splashed home the three-pointer to cut the lead to six.

Aberdeen drilled a triple from the top of the key to make it a one-possession game. Pullin attacked the paint and dropped in a floater to cut the Bear’s lead to one point. 

Baylor guard Jaden Nunn nearly scored in transition, but Florida freshman forward Alex Condon arrived to swat the shot into the bleachers. Condon forced a turnover in the paint, and Richard hit a jump shot on the other end to tie the game at 41.

Dennis tried to restore the Bears’ lead, but Condon was there again to reject the shot and maintain the deadlock at halftime. 

Kugel scored a wide-open layup off a set play to start the second half and retake the lead. Baylor center Yves Missi scored at the hoop to restore the Bears lead, 45-44. Dennis hit yet another 3-pointer for Baylor to make it a two-possession game.

Love continued the Bears’ lights-out shooting from long range with another triple. Pullin scored a pair of free throws, but Dennis backed down Pullin in the post and scored through a foul, though he missed the free throw. 

Pullin worked to the center of the paint and dished it off to Condon for a dunk. Florida continued to fight in a back-and-forth affair. Pullin lobbed up a pass to Clayton, who nearly tied the game with a dunk, but drew a foul.

The Iona transfer hit both free throws to tie the game at 61. 

Bridges and Bears forward Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua both splashed triples to quickly give Baylor a six-point lead. Clayton responded with a deep 2-pointer, but Dennis hit another triple to answer.

Pullin found Clayton for a wide-open 3-pointer to cut the lead to three, but Nunn answered with yet another triple for the Bears. With less than five minutes to play, Kugel confidently nailed a step-back 3-pointer to make it a five-point game.

Kugel looked to push in transition with Florida down by seven, but the Orlando product traveled on the fast break. The Gators forced a turnover on the ensuing possession, however, and Kugel scored a layup to cut into the lead.

Dennis and Baylor took control of the lead to all but secure the finish. Kugel hit a late triple to add a bit of drama with less than 20 seconds to play, but the Bears took care of business to close out the win.

The Gators will travel to face the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in the SEC/ACC Challenge Wednesday. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:15 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPNU.

Contact Topher Adams at tadams@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @Topher_Adams.


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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.


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