Thirty seconds passed as the Warriors tried to analyze what had happened to the ball while guarding the Gators in the second half. Florida’s quick ball movement consisted of underpasses, bounce passes, handoffs and dishes.
At the end of it all it usually ended with a triple by UF junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. After a terrible first half start, Florida dominated through everyone getting a touch.
“Just making the simple plays will be the biggest thing for us,” Clayton said.
The Florida Gators (5-3) defeated the Merrimack Warriors (4-6) 77-57 in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Tuesday.
After a lack-lustered offensive start in the first half, the Gators’ second half ball movement produced 46 points. Clayton finished with 26 points — his second 20-point game this season.
Clayton opened the game for the Gators with an emphasis on defense. He stole the ball from Merrimack freshman guard Adam Clark, which translated into a fastbreak layup for UF sophomore guard Riley Kugel.
Merrimack didn’t hesitate to respond. The Warriors answered with a 6-0 run and took an early 6-4 lead through the first three minutes of play.
UF sophomore center Micah Handlogten was one of the first players off the bench for Florida — his first appearance since he injured his ankle against Pittsburgh Nov. 22. His presence did little help on offense, however.
The Gators struggled to take the lid off the basket and shot 2-6 through six minutes.
UF went on an over three-minute scoring drought while Merrimack took advantage. A layup by Warriors graduate student forward Samba Diallo pushed a 9-0 Merrimack run and put his team up 15-6 with under 14 minutes left in the first half.
Florida freshman forward Alex Condon ended the Gators’ dry spell from the floor with a contested shot in the paint to close the gap to 18-10 at the midway point of the first.
UF held the Warriors to a three-minute scoring drought after the Condon basket but couldn’t take advantage on offense.
Florida kept missing shots. Merrimack’s defense opened each defensive possession with full court pressure and then transitioned to a 3-2 zone. This held the Gators beyond the 3-point arc on offense.
“They’re playing a different type of zone. It was kind of like a tandem, and the wings were very high,” Clayton said. “They’re a very active team. It was very annoying.”
The land beyond the arc finally opened up for UF when Clayton knocked in a 3-pointer with seven-and-a-half minutes left in the half. The Warriors, who continued to struggle on offense, called timeout up 21-16.
Florida appeared to wake up on both sides of the ball after the break. Behind Clayton’s triple and a layup, UF went on a 9-0, two-minute run and forced four Merrimack turnovers through four-and-a-half minutes.
Gators junior guard Will Richard brought the game within one possession with a put-back, one-handed jam with less than four minutes before the break.
Merrimack found success underneath the basket and went back to matching Florida’s points inside. The 6-foot-7-inch experienced Diallo took advantage in the paint against UF’s freshman forwards. He finished with 14 points — six of them coming from inside the paint.
However, Florida took the upper hand by switching to a high, halfcourt press defense and pushed the Warriors back. The defensive stops led to a wide open Kugel 3-pointer, which gave the Gators their first lead of the night, up 28-27 with nearly one-and-a-half minutes left in the half.
Warriors sophomore forward Bryan Etumnu hit a layup with 30 seconds before the half and gave Merrimack a tight 31-30 lead at halftime. Both teams shot below 40% from the floor and combined for a total 20 turnovers. UF made 13 points off of 11 Warrior turnovers in the half.
Clayton was a force to begin the second half. The Lake Wales, Florida, native scored a layup and swatted away a layup attempt by Diallo on the other end. Clayton scored four points in the first minute of the second half and gave UF a 34-31 lead.
The Warriors were able to respond off of second chance points and retook the lead off a 6-0, two-minute run. The Gators ran out of Clayton-led steam and went on a near three-minute drought until Condon went to the free throw line with 16 minutes left.
The Australian forward split his shots at the line. Florida graduate student guard Zyon Pullin corralled the ball in the air and put it into the basket with a smooth jumper to tie the game, 37-37.
Ball movement was key down the stretch for the Gators. After 30 seconds of everyone getting a touch on the ball, Clayton found the rock in his hands, wide open, for a corner 3-pointer. The guard drilled the shot and stretched a 10-0, two-and-a-half minute run for UF.
Merrimack called timeout down 44-37 with 13-and-a-half minutes remaining.
The quick chat for the Warriors didn’t stop the Gators momentum. Clayton hit another corner triple and Merrimack continued to struggle to answer back while on a six-minute scoring drought.
Florida’s run went out of control and progressed into a 15-2, five-minute run. Another one of Clayton’s four 3-pointers brought UF ahead 47-37 with 12-and-a-half minutes left — the Gators’ first double digit lead of the night.
Pullin orchestrated Florida’s offense down the stretch of the second half, despite dealing with shoulder soreness from a fall he took against Wake Forest Nov. 29. The UC Riverside transfer assisted on three Gator baskets.
This collective sharing of the ball for UF and Pullin placed a fire into their engine in transition. A steal by Florida graduate student forward Tyrese Samuel opened the gates to another fastbreak layup by Clayton.
Less than a minute later, Samuel dunked the ball in, uncontested, and put the Gators up 62-41 while on a 28-4 eight-minute run with eight minutes left in the game.
UF’s offense slowed down gradually after. Florida went on to miss its next five shots from the floor after the Tyrese slam.
By the two-minute mark, the Gators opened the bench up 73-53. The Warriors defense, exhausted from finding answers against Florida, ran out of time and lost 77-57.
UF will travel to South Florida for its Orange Bowl Classic matchup against the Richmond Spiders at 4 p.m. Saturday. The game will 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.