In the game of basketball, the free throw line can make or break a half, a game or even a season.
In Florida’s 21-point victory over Florida A&M Tuesday, where the Rattlers fouled the Gators 22 times, UF took advantage and shot a season-best 65.7% from the charity stripe.
“They were a little physical on the defensive end,” said Florida head coach Todd Golden. “It took us a little bit to get our wits about us, but I thought we were decent attacking it.”
The Florida Gators (2-1) defeated the Florida A&M Rattlers (0-3) 89-68 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center to open up a two-game homestand Tuesday. Led by junior guard Will Richard, UF shot 47.6% from the floor and led for more than 35 minutes through the contest.
Richard got knocked down on his way to the basket on the game's first possession. The wing drained both attempts at the free throw line to open the contest.
Besides the shots from the charity stripe, UF went scoreless in the first three minutes of play and missed its first nine field goal attempts.
“I thought we came out too relaxed,” said Richard. “We kind of fell into the game instead of coming out of it aggressive.”
Florida’s defense kept them from falling behind early. Gators junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. ended the scoring streak with a right-handed layup to give UF a 4-3 lead with 17 minutes before the break.
The Rattlers’ man defense created pressure for Florida’s offense. Everyone was met inside, with two defenders anticipating their arrival. FAMU took advantage of this with a few fastbreak points. A transition layup by Florida A&M senior forward Ja’ Derryus Eaton gave the visitors a 7-4 lead within the first five minutes.
Richard exploded on offense in response to the small deficit. The junior scored five points in less than a minute and retook the lead for UF through an 8-0 run.
Richard, who finished the game with a team-high 20 points and six rebounds, stayed on the floor from the opening tip for nine and a half consecutive minutes.
Florida A&M found itself in a rut fast. FAMU converted only one of its next eight baskets after the Gators’ run. Rattlers head coach Robert McCullum called a timeout down 14-9 midway through the first half to readjust his team.
FAMU senior forward Kieth Lamar got his team back from the break with a basket under the rim. Florida graduate student forward Tyrese Samuel responded, and took Lamar inside and drew a foul.
Samuel, who shot 3-7 from the charity stripe for the night, didn’t make the free throws. However, freshman forward Alex Condon grabbed an offensive rebound to extend the play and allowed sophomore guard Denzel Aberdeen to score for two inside.
This scenario recurred throughout the first half. UF corralled 27 rebounds in the opening 20 minutes — 13 of them on offense.
Florida went on a 6-0 run, and the Rattlers called another timeout early, with the Gators up 20-11 and about eight minutes left before halftime.
Florida A&M fouled UF rapidly to keep Florida from taking the game away early. Despite slowing the game down, it placed UF in the bonus with more than five minutes left in the first and Florida scored 10 points from the line by halftime.
The Gators’ transition offense accelerated the game into the break. A steal by Gators freshman forward Thomas Haugh on Rattlers senior guard Love Bettis led to ball movement down the sideline. The ball found its way back to Haugh for a fastbreak layup.
The freshman missed it, but Richard cleaned up the mess and extended Florida’s lead, 34-19, with nearly three minutes left in the half.
The Rattlers drilled four of their last five shots from the floor in the half but still trailed 38-28 to UF at halftime.
Florida shot 38.2% from the floor to end the first half — shooting 25% from beyond the arc as well. With the Gators in a slump on offense, Golden had a message for his team.
“To be honest, it was to wake up,” said Clayton.
Clayton took the words to heart and ripped the ball away from FAMU freshman guard K’Jei Parker. The steal converted a fastbreak layup on the other end to begin the second half.
The Rattlers took advantage of open looks to close the deficit early in the second half. Parker swished a wide-open jumper to cut the Gators lead to 42-34 with 18 minutes remaining.
The game turned physical while Florida went on a two-minute scoring drought. Five fouls had been committed between the two squads in the first four minutes of the half.
The spell ended at the hands of the veterans Samuel and Clayton. The duo produced nine points between each other in the run. A Clayton triple pushed UF’s lead back to double digits, 49-36, with 15:46 left.
The reserves pushed the envelope for Florida with Richard and Clayton still on the floor midway through the half. Condon capped off an 8-0 run with a 3-pointer to put Florida ahead 62-42 with 12 minutes remaining.
FAMU switched to a full court defense to combat the Gators’ bench production. The effort worked for a moment and pushed UF’s offense to the top of the perimeter.
Despite the Rattlers shooting 51.6% from the floor throughout the second half, Florida kept its momentum due to trips to the line. The Gators shot 23-35 from the line to end the game.
FAMU committed foul after foul, which held them back from getting back into the game. The Rattlers tallied 22 team fouls in the game.
Florida A&M’s defense fell through in the last four minutes and Florida opened the gates once again. UF made four of its last five shots to finish off the Rattlers 89-68.
The Gators will stay in Gainesville to face another in-state opponent, the Florida State Seminoles, at 7 p.m. Friday. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
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.