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Florida junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. shoots the ball in the Gators' 77-57 win against the Merrimack Warriors on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.
Florida junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. shoots the ball in the Gators' 77-57 win against the Merrimack Warriors on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

LAKELAND, FL —  Florida’s trip to Lakeland to take on East Carolina marked a homecoming for junior guard Watler Clayton Jr. 

The Lake Wales, Florida, native grew up just 40 minutes from Lakeland but initially wasn’t supposed to start the game against ECU, as he welcomed the birth of his firstborn this week, as reported by Jacob Rudner of 247Sports.

Clayton capped off his eventful week with a 22-point performance in his return home as Florida took down the Pirates. He emphasized how it was nice to win in his return.

“It felt great,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve never lost here, so that’s always a good feeling.”

The Florida Gators (7-3) defeated the East Carolina Pirates (6-5) 70-65 in the 2023 Florida Tip-Off Thursday night at the RP Funding Center. Clayton’s 22 points on 9-16 shooting led UF.

“As our program continues to mature, these are the types of wins that build character, they build trust, they build belief,” said UF head coach Todd Golden. “I’m proud of our guys to find a way to win tonight.” 

Graduate student forward Tyrese Samuel worked down low for a layup to get the scoring started. Florida opened the game with three straight makes. 

UF missed its first shot of the game, but Samuel grabbed the board and dished it out to Clayton for his first triple. 

East Carolina responded on the other end with a 3-pointer of their own. Clayton drove through contact on the other end and converted a three-point play. 

Clayton’s scoring sparked a 7-0 UF run as the Gators led ECU 16-8 early. The Pirates went on a three-minute-long scoring drought in that span. 

Pirates guard RJ Felton grabbed an offensive board and put it back in to end the Gators’ scoring run.

East Carolina slowly battled back to cut the lead to four, but Florida junior guard Will Richard drilled a three to push the lead back to nine. Condon caught a pass down low and scored an open layup to make it a double-digit game. 

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Richard hit a deep 2-pointer to keep UF in front midway through the first half, with UF up 25-15. 

East Carolina guard Jaden Walker and forward Brandon Johnson Nailed back-to-back triples to make it a four-point game. Clayton answered the scores with two straight 3-pointers of his own to give him an early 18 points. 

Clayton made seven of his first 10 shots. The 3-point barrage continued as ECU drilled a triple to cut the deficit to seven. 

The Gators went into halftime up 37-30 against ECU. Florida made just one of its last seven field goal attempts. Clayton finished the first half with 20 points on 8-13 shooting. 

Florida opened the second half with a pair of Samuel free throws. 

Walker hit a turnaround jumper in the paint to cut the UF lead to just four early in the second half. 

The Gators swung it around before sophomore guard Riley Kugel drove to the cup and scored a tough layup in traffic. He failed to complete the three-point play. 

Florida freshman Alex Condon rejected an ECU shot and triggered a fast break that ended in a Clayton layup through contact. 

Graduate student guard Zyon Pullin pulled some mid-air acrobatics around a defender and sunk a shot inside to move the UF lead back to seven. Pirates guard Bobby Pettiford Jr. converted a three-point play on the other end to keep the game close. 

Richard knocked down a 3-pointer at the top of the arc, and Pullin hit a fastbreak layup to get UF in front by nine points. The run was short lived after Johnson buried a three. 

The two sides traded fastbreak layups as the tempo picked up midway through the second half. 

Samuel battled down low and scored a layup against contact. He missed the ensuing free throw as the Gators struggled to bury shots from the charity stripe all game long and finished 15-28. 

Pullin hustled down the court and stopped an ECU layup, before running back and scoring a transition layup on the other end. 

UF proceeded to go on a four-minute-long scoring drought as the Pirates cut the UF lead to two after Walker hit a corner three. UF led just 61-59 with less than five minutes in the game. 

Both sides failed to make baskets late as the Gators and Pirates were each just one for their last eight shot attempts. Pullin hit a free throw to end UF’s scoring drought. 

Pirates guard Cam Hayes hit a mid-range jumper on the other end, but Pullin responded with a driving layup. 

The Gators defense held the Pirates just 1-9 from the floor down the stretch. With less than 30 seconds to go in the game, Samuel grabbed an offensive board and put back a dunk as Florida held on to take down the Pirates 70-65. 

The Gators will head to Charlotte, North Carolina, next to take on the Michigan Wolverines in the Jumpman Invitational Tuesday. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. and be broadcast on ESPN.  

Contact Jackson Reyes at jacksonreyes@alligator.org. 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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