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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Gators look to regroup as tough SEC slate looms near

Florida plans to bounce back ahead against No. 22 Ole Miss after an 87-85 loss to No. 6 Kentucky Saturday

Sophomore guard Riley Kugel attempts a jumper in the Gators' 89-68 win against the Florida State Seminoles on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.
Sophomore guard Riley Kugel attempts a jumper in the Gators' 89-68 win against the Florida State Seminoles on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

After riding a six-game win streak during December in non-conference play, the Florida Gators men’s basketball team suffered its first home loss to No. 6 Kentucky to begin its Southeastern Conference schedule.

Although the Gators (10-4, 0-1 SEC) kept the score close throughout, the Kentucky Wildcats (11-2, 1-0 SEC) escaped with an 87-85 victory at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Saturday.

Florida’s inefficiency from both the 3-point and free throw lines in the second half of Saturday’s matchup will be an issue that UF head coach Todd Golden’s squad will seek to improve on. The Gators’ conference schedule will include highly anticipated matchups all season long.

“Every win in this league is so valuable,” Golden said after Saturday’s loss. “I think our guys have the mental toughness to understand that we can’t sulk and feel bad for ourselves about this game because we’ve got a lot of season left.” 

The Gators hope to execute at a higher level down the stretch of games. Golden is well aware of the free throw shooting troubles up and down the Gators lineup after shooting 62% from the charity stripe in the loss to the Wildcats.

“We lost the battle at the line by one,” Golden said. “The thing that’s bothering me more right now is that I thought we missed some really good looks. Obviously, free throws are a part of that.”

There will be more for the Gators to improve on besides free throws as a daunting SEC schedule looms. After Florida held Kentucky to only 37 points in the first half, the Wildcats finished with 87 points in the game and were rock solid at the free throw line late.

“Down the stretch, it’s got to be like the first 40 minutes,” Golden said. “In the sense that you gotta be able to take care of the ball, you gotta get shots, you gotta get on the glass and your first shot defense has to be great.”

Another matchup with a strong SEC opponent is just around the corner as the team gears up to head to Oxford Wednesday for a battle with Ole Miss.

The team started 13-0 to begin the season, but the Rebels suffered a defeat in their SEC opener to Tennessee. They’re led by a duo of senior guards Matthew Murell and Allen Flanigan, who each are averaging over 16 points per game and will be a focus point for Florida defensively.

“You gotta be able to saddle back up and understand that Ole Miss is a very good team,” Golden said. “Playing in Oxford is going to be a challenge but again, that’s just why you want to be at this level. That’s why you want to play in this league.”

The Florida offense went ice-cold down the stretch of Saturday’s affair and will have to find a way to be more efficient moving forward. The Gators failed to convert a field goal for over a 3:50 time period and were 1-10 from the 3-point line in the second half. 

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Junior guard Will Richard went scoreless against Kentucky after recording back-to-back games scoring five 3-pointers in each contest. 

However, the Gators' backcourt has been a strong point for the team all season. Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. and graduate student Zyon Pullin have led the way for Florida offensively. The duo is coming off of Saturday’s game each posting a team-high team high of 23 points.

Sophomore guard Riley Kugel failed to score a 3-pointer in his last four games, but had a strong performance Saturday. 

Golden plans to maintain the production from Kugel, who has both started and come off of the Florida bench this season. The sophomore recorded 15 points in just 23 minutes of play.

After the Gators' first road test in the SEC, they will return to Gainesville for a matchup with Arkansas on Saturday. The 9-5 Razorbacks lost their conference opener to Auburn and will face the Gators in the O’Dome.

“Every game in the SEC is the Super Bowl so you have to be mentally tough,” Golden said.

Then, Florida will be greeted with a hostile environment in Knoxville Jan. 16, facing the No. 5 Tennesse Volunteers.

“It’s super tough,” Pullin said after the loss to Kentucky. “We just gotta dig deep and find ways to make stops,” [when the game is coming down the stretch].

UT has played its way into a top-five national ranking in the AP poll. The Vols had one of the toughest non-conference schedules in college basketball and currently are on a seven-game win streak with an 11-3 overall record.

Florida’s tip-off against Ole Miss will be at 9 p.m., Jan. 10 at The Sandy and John Black Pavillion in Oxford, Mississippi. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.

“We’ll go back and look at it all and see the different areas that we can improve,” Golden said.

Contact Max at mtucker@alligator.org. Follow him on X @MaxTuckerUF25.

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Max Tucker

Max Tucker is a junior transfer student at UF. After obtaining his A.A. in Journalism from Santa Fe College in 2023, he chose further his education at Florida's College of Journalism and Communications. Max is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Journalism with a specialization in sports and media. He enjoys golfing and going to the beach with his friends in his free time. Max will be covering the Gators Golf teams this Fall for The Alligator.


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