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Thursday, April 18, 2024

Florida uses second-half comeback to take down rival Georgia

Freshman forward Thomas Haugh had a career outing with 17 points and seven rebounds

Gators men's basketball guard Walter Clayton Jr. shoots a floater in the team's win over Georgia in Athens on Saturday, February 17, 2024.
Gators men's basketball guard Walter Clayton Jr. shoots a floater in the team's win over Georgia in Athens on Saturday, February 17, 2024.

Junior guard Will Richard let a catch-and-shoot 3-point attempt fly with 55 seconds left in the Gators men’s basketball team’s matchup with Georgia. A make would’ve been the dagger that would once and for all silence Georgia’s home crowd.

But the ball bounced off the rim and a Bulldog rebound would give them a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer.

Before UGA had a hope of snatching the rebound, freshman forward Thomas Haugh was already soaring in the air to snatch the board before getting fouled and sinking the game-clinching free throw with 47 seconds left.

Behind a surprising performance from Haugh, the Gators (18-7, 8-4 SEC) defeated Georgia 88-82 at Stegeman Coliseum on Saturday.

When head coach Todd Golden was asked if it was Haugh’s best performance as a Florida Gator, his answer was decisive.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Golden said. “Just huge for all 40 [minutes], but I thought he was humongous in the first half. He kept us in it.”

One team came into Saturday’s matchup winning six of its last seven games. The other was on a five-game skid. However, Florida found itself in a Dogfight on Saturday.

It was a battle of physicality in the paint in the game’s opening minutes. The first 10 points of the matchup were scored inside the heart of both team’s defenses.

But not even the Florida offense, which came into Saturday ranked No. 13 in offensive efficiency, could hold up with the Bulldogs’ hot start.

UGA’s offense was explosive early, shooting 7-for-8 from the field and grabbing a 16-9 lead heading into the first media timeout.

With their backs against the wall, the Gators' deficit grew to 11. But much like they’ve done all season long, junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. and graduate student Zyon Pullin delivered a spark. 

The guards led the way for a 7-0 Florida run after Pullin sank a 3-pointer from the top of the key and Clayton Jr. finished a tough scoop layup underneath the hoop.

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A pair of free throws by Clayton Jr. cut the Bulldogs lead to 26-20 with 11:24 left in the first half.

Florida got close to tying or taking the lead multiple times in the first half. However, UF had no answer for Georgia guard Noah Thomasson.

The senior came into Saturday’s contest averaging 12 points per game on the season but erupted for 17 first-half points on 7-for-10 shooting.

Although Florida never possessed a lead in the opening 20 minutes, they can largely thank Haugh for keeping the team’s head above water.

Haugh came off of the bench to score a first-half high 12 points for the Gators including three 3-pointers.

Not only did the freshman shoot a perfect 4-for-4 from the field in the first half, but his buckets were timely. Haugh knocked down a 3-pointer from the left corner to cut the Bulldogs lead to 42-40 at the 2:28 mark.

“My shot started clicking a little bit but, you know, it was always a team effort,” he said.

Fifteen bench points kept Florida afloat heading into the break. Clayton Jr. and Pullin each provided solid first-half performances with a combined 18 points.

Georgia took a 46-40 advantage into the break following a 4-0 run in the final 1:28.

“Forty-six points in the first half, you just can’t let that happen,” Clayton said. “They were just scoring at will.”

As the Bulldogs were riding the momentum into halftime, the Gators had different plans for the opening minutes of the second half.

“We challenged our team pretty good at halftime,” Golden said. “It was asking the guys what we want our identity to be.”

Clayton Jr. scored the first five points for UF before Richard followed his lead with a clutch 3-pointer from the right wing that earned a fist pump from Golden. It knotted the score at 48 apiece.

After holding the lead for the first 22-plus minutes of the game, UGA’s offense went stagnant. The Bulldogs went on an 0-for-6 shooting stretch that included three turnovers in just over two minutes of play.

“We were getting to 50-50 balls better,” Golden said. “We did a better job on the glass and we did a better job staying attached to shooters.

The Gators took advantage and went on an 8-2 run to earn a 54-50 advantage at the 13:34 mark.

Bulldogs senior Jabri Abdur-Rahim responded by calmly stepping to the charity stripes to sink back-to-back free throws to slow down UF’s momentum.

The shooting woes continued for Georgia as they went on a 9:05 field goal drought while shooting 0-for-8 from the field midway through the second half.

The Florida lead was extended once again after freshman forward Alex Condon sparked a 5-0 run with a steal and score. Freshman guard Riley Kugel also took advantage of one of the Bulldogs’ four turnovers over a 2:56 stretch.

Haugh picked the pocket of his defender before finding Kugel in transition for a euro-step layup to give the Gators a 63-51 edge with just over 11 minutes left in the game.

The Bulldogs' hopes of victory seemed to be slipping away. Their field goal drought reached over 10 minutes as they looked at a double-digit deficit on the scoreboard. But perhaps a glimmer of hope still laid ahead.

Freshman guard Blue Cain drained a catch-and-shoot corner 3-pointer to end UGA’s offensive slump. The timely shot shrunk Florida’s lead to 63-60.

The teams traded baskets as crunch time loomed near. Neither side was able to gain much of an advantage down the stretch with the lead getting no larger than three points over the next three minutes for either team.

Haugh put his talents on display when it mattered the most to help UF come away with the win. The freshman scored a timely putback layup to increase the Gators' lead to seven points at the 5:11 mark before sealing the victory with a free throw with under a minute to play.

Clayton Jr. led the way for UF with a team-high 21 points. Haugh had a productive night posting a career-high 17 points and seven rebounds.

“We came together in the second half and regrouped,” Haugh said.

Pullin was rock solid while facilitating the offense. The grad student posted 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists. The guard also committed zero turnovers over 38 minutes of play. 

Florida will travel to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 15 Alabama on Wednesday. Tip-off is at 7 p.m.

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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