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Friday, April 12, 2024

Gators come up short against Kentucky in SEC opener

Graduate student Zyon Pullin and junior Walter Clayton Jr. each posted a team-high 23 points

Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. drives in for a layup in Florida’s 87-85 loss to Kentucky Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.
Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. drives in for a layup in Florida’s 87-85 loss to Kentucky Saturday, Jan. 6, 2024.

With 1:21 remaining in the Gators men’s basketball team’s contest with the Kentucky Wildcats, freshman forward Aaron Bradshaw sank a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a four-point lead. Just an hour earlier, you could barely hear yourself speak. After the Bradshaw 3, you could hear a pin drop.

The Gators had no choice but to extend the game as long as they could by fouling the opposing ball handlers.

Though, Kentucky freshman guard Reed Sheppard was lights out at the free throw line down the stretch, giving the Gators a minimal chance to tie the game. 

With 0.4 seconds remaining, Sheppard fouled freshman forward Alex Condon, giving him three shots at the foul line. After making the first two, Condon purposefully missed the third, but it was out of reach for a possible tip-in to tie the game, ending Florida’s comeback hopes.

The Florida Gators men’s basketball team (10-4, 0-1 SEC) fell to the Kentucky Wildcats (11-2, 1-0 SEC) 87-85 in their first game of Southeastern Conference play. The Stephen C. O’Connell Center consisted of a loud and hostile environment for the opener Saturday afternoon.

“I don’t think we played great but I think we played well,” Florida head coach Todd Golden said after the loss. “This is a game I expected to win, to be honest.”

Gators graduate student forward Tyrese Samuel was aggressive on the boards early, putting back a dunk from a missed layup to give the Gators an 8-6 advantage at the 16:24 mark in the first half.

Freshman forward Alex Condon came off of the bench for the Gators and banked in a 3-pointer that erupted the crowd.

Golden used the depth of his bench to keep Kentucky on its heels early in the first half. Sophomore guard Riley Kugel entered the game and created instant scoring after a steal on defense led to a transition layup for Kugel.

Florida had its largest lead of the game at 16-10 before Kentucky freshman guard Reed Sheppard knocked down back-to-back free throws.

Although Kugel had been in a shooting slump – not making a 3-pointer in the last five games – he buried a 3 in the corner to give the Gators a 19-12 lead.

The Wildcats refused to watch the Florida lead grow any larger, fighting their way back into the game. Kentucky guard Antonio Reeves scored back-to-back buckets to keep the game competitive as the Wildcats trailed 22-19 with 10:17 left to play in the first half.

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Gators sophomore guard Denzel Aberdeen added his name to the box score after coming off of the bench and draining a 3-pointer to give UF a 25-21 lead.

Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. had a team-high 14 points in the first half while shooting 5-10 from the field. He sank a 3-pointer with 5:18 left to play in the first half to give Florida a 34-29 advantage. Clayton Jr. finished with 23 points. 

“We just have to find ways to dig deep and get stops when we need them,” Clayton Jr. said.

On the next offensive possession, 7-foot-1 sophomore center Micah Handlogten made a move in the low post to get a layup, putting the Gators up by seven.

Golden was urging the home crowd to get on their feet on the final possession of the first half. The Gators locked down on defense and held a 45-37 lead heading into the break.

The Gators found success from the 3-point line in the first half of play. The team shot 8-20 from beyond the arc, allowing Golden’s squad to take an eight-point lead into halftime.

Kentucky came out firing in the second half led by strong guard play. The Wildcats opened up the half on an 11-4 run and looked to have all of the momentum on their side. However, a pair of made free throws from junior guard Will Richard slowed the pace down and allowed Florida to find its rhythm, leading 49-44 at the 16:53 mark in the second half. 

However, Kentucky guard DJ Wagner answered with an aggressive layup for the Wildcats to quiet the hostile crowd. 

Kugel looked to build off of a strong first half performance, attempting a 3-pointer at the 12:39 mark. Although the shot came up short, the rebound returned to Kugel as he snatched it and took flight for an aggressive put-back dunk. 

Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard drained a 3-pointer on the fast break for Kentucky at the 11:36 mark to cut the Florida lead to just one point.

Handlogten turned the ball over early in the second half while trying to complete a bounce pass. The sophomore center responded well when put back into the game, banking in a solid layup to give Florida a 63-59 edge with 9:59 left in the game. 

Handlogten flashed his talents on the defensive end as well. Reeves seemed to be wide open for a Kentucky layup before Handlogten chased him down and pinned the ball between the rim and the backboard.

The teams traded misses until Bradshaw drove down the lane for a layup to cut the Florida lead to 65-61 with 9:05 left to play.

Later, with under seven minutes remaining, Pullin had his defender in isolation and knocked down a 3-pointer to give the Gators a five-point.

“I thought we had them on their heels a little bit,” Pullin said. I just think they made a few more plays than us in the end.”

This was the only 3 that the Gators made in the half as Kentucky took advantage down the stretch and came out with the win. The Gators shot just 1-10 in the second half.

Golden was transparent about the improvements that need to be made late in games when the score is close.

“We’ve gotta do a better job getting stops,” Golden said. “You have to be able to take care of the ball and make shots and your first shot defense has to be great, so we’ll go back and look at it all and see the areas that we can improve.”

The Gators will continue their SEC schedule Wednesday. The team will be on the road in Oxford, Mississippi, for a 9 p.m. tip-off. 

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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