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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Gators flash promise, room to grow in first week of basketball season

Florida 1-1 after a 73-70 loss to Virginia

Sophomore guard Riley Kugel dunks the ball in the Gators' 93-73 win against the Loyola Maryland Greyhounds on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.
Sophomore guard Riley Kugel dunks the ball in the Gators' 93-73 win against the Loyola Maryland Greyhounds on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023.

Virginia guard Reece Beekman, leading the vaunted Cavaliers’ pack line defense, forced Florida junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. into a turnover with hardly any time left to play. As Beekman took his final free throw, the Gators could only watch and think of what could’ve been.

Despite the loss, UF showed plenty of promise in its first two games of the 2023-2024 college basketball season.

Florida (1-1) defeated the Loyola Maryland Greyhounds before falling to the Virginia Cavaliers in the Hall of Series in the first week of the college basketball season. Second-year head coach Todd Golden was happy with the way his team fought against the Cavaliers and remains optimistic moving forward.

“We went down 11 and that was another moment — ‘What are we going to be made of?’ — and we came back with a 12-0 run to take the lead,” Golden said after the loss. “Super disappointed that we lost, but I’m confident in this team and really excited for the rest of our season.”

UF’s offense struggled to make plays against Virginia in the loss. The Gators shot just 28% from 3-point range and 40% from the field. Florida also couldn’t hold on to the ball, with 16 turnovers leading to 11 Cavalier points. 

Some of those offensive issues stemmed from a difficult game from Clayton and star sophomore guard Riley Kugel. Clayton shot 2-10 from the field — 0-5 from three — and turned the ball over five times, including on the final possession.

Kugel struggled early, and he shot just 36.8% from the floor for the game. However, the preseason All-SEC guard took over down the stretch. He used his impressive athleticism to get to the rim and finished with a team-high of 17 points.

Golden praised both of his guards’ resilience, even if the performance wasn’t up to their usual standard.

“Riley and Walt played 35 [minutes] each,” Golden said. “They didn’t have their best games, but I thought they stepped up in the second half.”

Florida will get a huge boost in the backcourt with the return of graduate student guard Zyon Pullin. The UC Riverside transfer was suspended for the first three games of the season, but he’ll be available when the Gators face Florida State Nov. 17.

“When ZP [Zyon Pullin] gets back next week, it’s going to take a little pressure off the rest of our backcourt and allow him to take some of those minutes and allow those guys to rest a little bit,” Golden said.

While the backcourt rounds into form, Florida’s size in the frontcourt is flashing potential. In UF’s 93-73 win over Loyola Nov. 6, freshman forward Alex Condon, sophomore center Micah Handlogten and graduate student big man Tyrese Samuel combined for 44 points and 17 rebounds.

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Handlogten, in particular, was impressive. The Marshall transfer was touted for his defensive presence before the season, and he’s delivered with 20 rebounds, three blocks and two steals through two games.

His offensive prowess wasn’t expected, however. Handlogten scored 30 total points to start the season, using his 7-foot-1-inch frame inside to score in the paint and flashing the ability to hit an open three-point jump shot.

Florida will need to clean up several aspects of the team before heading into the meat of non-conference play. Perhaps the early achilles heel has come at the free throw line. The Gators shot just 15-30 from the charity stripe against the Greyhounds.

“We struggled a little bit that way in the scrimmages,” Golden said Nov. 6. “This team will get to the line more … I think we have more opportunities to finish at the rim and we got to take advantage of those moments better than we did tonight.”

Florida already showed improvement from game one to two, hitting 11 of 15 free throws in the loss to Virginia.

The Gators will host a pair of in-state opponents in the second week of the season. Florida A&M will visit the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. before the FSU Seminoles come to Gainesville Nov. 17.

The showdown with FSU will be a double-header with the women’s basketball teams. The women’s teams will face off at 4 p.m. before the men’s teams face off at 7 p.m. The women’s game will be broadcast on SEC Network+, and the men’s game will be on the SEC Network.

Contact Topher Adams at 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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