Within the first 49 seconds of the game in Brooklyn, New York, Gators sophomore center Micah Handlogten fell to the ground — legs tangled with a Panther and never got back into the action. Eight minutes later, a 3-pointer by Pitt redshirt junior forward William Jefferies put UF on the brink of trailing by double digits.
In one of the worst starts to a game this season for Florida, the Gators took over in the Big Apple behind a Sunshine State native’s season-high night.
“This is a big win for us,” Florida head coach Todd Golden said. “This is going to be one that’s going to go with us all year.”
The Florida Gators (4-1) defeated the Pittsburgh Panthers (4-1) 86-71 in UF’s first game of the NIT Season Tip-off at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn Wednesday. Despite a rough start, UF held Pitt to 35% shooting from the floor and led for nearly 19 minutes in the contest.
Gators junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. finished the game two points shy of his career-high. The 6-foot-2-inch playmaker scored 28 points and stole the ball twice.
The first half couldn’t get any rougher for Florida. Handlogten was subbed out for UF freshman forward Alex Condon within the first minute of play for UF.
The former Sun Belt Freshman of the Year didn’t return to the game and was ruled out for the remainder of the night after halftime.
The Panthers took an early 7-0 lead. Pitt junior guard Ishmael Leggett started the run with an easy layup by the rim for the game's first points.
Gators graduate student forward Tyrese Samuel ended Florida’s cold streak with back-to-back baskets under the rim, but UF fell right back into its shooting slump. The Gators didn’t make another point for nearly three minutes.
Pittsburgh took advantage with four unanswered points. Golden called his first timeout of the game after a hook shot by Pitt redshirt junior forward Zack Austin put the Panthers ahead 11-4 through five minutes in the game.
Clayton responded with a triple right after to open an 8-0 two-minute run. UF’s defense kept up with its offense’s production and held the Panthers to a scoring drought at the same time.
A driving layup by Gators junior guard Will Richard brought the game within one, 19-18, with close to 10 minutes left in the opening half.
Clayton continued to reel Florida closer to Pittsburgh from both the free throw line and beyond the arc. The guard finished the half with 13 points — three of his five made shots from the 3-point range.
Pitt shot 5-17 from beyond the arc in the half and only found refuge via the free throw line.
Condon hit a post-move shimmy inside for a hook shot jumper for two points to tie the contest at 22 with eight minutes before the break. The game drew close for Florida down the stretch of the half, but similar to Pittsburgh, the Gators struggled to start a run.
Both teams matched each other’s points in the last two minutes before halftime until the turnover bug bit the Panthers. Florida graduate student guard Zyon Pullin stole the ball from Pitt senior forward Blake Hinson to feed Clayton for a 3-pointer on the fastbreak.
After the triple, Pittsburgh freshman guard Carlton Carrington turned the ball over with UF sophomore guard Riley Kugel close to him. Kugel picked the ball up and assisted Clayton for another fastbreak score.
The Gators finished the half on an 8-0 run — all within 52 seconds. Freshman forward Thomas Haugh drilled a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer at the buzzer to put Florida ahead 39-34 over Pitt at halftime.
The Panthers started the last 20 minutes of play with five consecutive points. A 3-pointer by Leggett knotted the game once again at 39 with 18 and a half minutes remaining.
The lead changed three more times from that point until a Florida 5-0 run, fueled by transition offense. Clayton swished a shot from behind the 3-point arc and followed it with a jumper right at the charity stripe to put the Gators ahead 51-44 with 15 minutes left.
Despite a triple by Leggett at the 14-and-a-half minute mark in the half, Pitt continued to struggle against the Gators' pressure defense. Pittsburgh suffered a four-minute scoring drought with UF’s reserves out on the court.
Florida’s bench, which was responsible for 28 of the Gators' points, gave UF its first double-digit lead of the game with a Pullin fastbreak layup off another Panther turnover. Gators led 60-47 with almost 10 minutes left.
Leggett ended the nightmare for Pittsburgh with a layup to vanquish the Pitt scoring drought. The 6-foot-3-inch guard finished the game with 19 points and nine rebounds.
Pittsburgh decided to change its defense to zone in the midst of another Gators run, but Pullin dissected the change in defense and found Clayton for a corner 3-pointer.
UF recorded 24 assists in the game. The ball movement was a key to Clayton’s performance on offense, he said.
“Just everybody on the team finding me in my spots,” Clayton said. “We were just finding each other tonight, and glad the shots were falling.”
The Panthers missed nine of its last 11 shots from the field when they headed into the last seven minutes of the game. Florida, which held a 72-57 lead with six minutes left, converted six of its last seven attempts.
Pitt fell behind further as UF continued to make strides behind a career-like night from Clayton on offense.
Carrington made a jumper in the paint with 52 seconds left in the game to drop Florida’s lead to 81-71. The shot was the closest that Pittsburgh came to a comeback.
The Gators made five more points from the charity stripe and finished the game with an 86-71 victory over the Panthers.
UF will stay in Brooklyn and play against the Baylor Bears in the NIT Season Tip-off title game at 5:30 p.m. Friday. The game will be broadcast on ESPN or ESPN2.
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.