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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Gators men's basketball earns second win over ranked opponent

Sophomore guard Riley Kugel came off the bench for Florida to score a team-high 22 points

Gators men's basketball guard Zyon Pullin calls the offense in the team's win over the Auburn Tigers on Saturday, February 10, 2024.
Gators men's basketball guard Zyon Pullin calls the offense in the team's win over the Auburn Tigers on Saturday, February 10, 2024.

The Florida Gators men’s basketball team has had multiple opportunities to knock off top-tier opponents this season. Although they took a quadrant 1 record of just 1-7 into their matchup on Saturday, they had another chance to earn a statement victory over the No. 12 Auburn Tigers.

At the 15:08 mark in the second half, sophomore guard Riley Kugel held the ball at the top of the key with the shot clock winding down. He pulled it from deep and a foul sent him flying to the floor.

As the Stephen C. O’Connell Center crowd waited in anticipation, the referee’s whistle blew and the ball sank through the net as UF’s lead grew to 61-35 at the 15:04 mark and put the game out of reach.

The Florida Gators (16-7, 6-4 SEC) defeated Auburn (19-5, 8-3 SEC) 81-65 in front of 10,808 people in the O’Dome on Saturday.

“Start to finish, best effort of the year,” head coach Todd Golden said. “They’re {Auburn} playing as well as anybody. “And then we come out and we play our best game of the year.”

The crowd was hostile and electric once the game began. The Gators used the momentum of the home crowd to jump out to an early 9-0 lead. Auburn came into the matchup with the third-best defensive efficiency ranking, according to KenPom.

“We wanted to get off to a fast start this game, you know, just kind of feed off the crowd,” graduate student guard Zyon Pullin said. “I think we got off to a pretty good running start.”

UF was efficient offensively opening the game 4-for-6 from the field. The Gators backcourt led the way in the opening minutes. Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. and Pullin scored 14 of the team’s first 19 points.

The Gators held a 10-point lead heading into the second media timeout. The Tigers desperately needed to find a groove offensively after opening the game 3-for-12 from the field and just 1-for-7 from deep.

Auburn found themselves in a deep hole after a 12-2 Florida run over 4:33 of play. The Tigers offensive woes continued as they trailed 28-11 at the 7:44 mark while shooting just 25% from the field.

Kugel came off of the bench for Florida and wasted no time making an impact. The shifty guard showed off his versatility on offense with a corner 3-pointer and a huge dunk in transition that erupted the crowd.

The Tigers switched their defense to a 2-3 zone in hopes of slowing down the Florida offensive surge in the winding minutes of the first half. The Gators went scoreless on the next three trips offensively amidst a 5-0 Auburn run.

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Florida put together a strong team defensive performance in the first half. The Gators forced eight turnovers at the break while scoring 11 points off  Auburn mishaps. 

The Gators backcourt kept the Auburn guards in check on the perimeter. The Tigers’ backcourt shot just 1-for-12 from 3-point range in the first half. 

UF never trailed in the first half and took a 42-26 lead into halftime. Clayton Jr. and Pullin led the way with 11 and nine points, respectively.

The Tigers were contained on the glass largely in part to sophomore center Micah Handlogten’s team-high five rebounds at the break.

“Micah having a great game was definitely a big part of that,” Clayton Jr. said. “Our bigs did a great job of shutting them down.” 

Auburn junior forward Johni Broome came into the contest averaging just over 16 points per game. However, his talents were contained in the first half totaling just five points.

“We just wanted to run bodies on him and make it really hard for him and make him think about something every time he caught the ball,” Golden said.

As the second half began, Florida kept its foot on the gas. Clayton Jr. came out firing with seven points in the first two-plus minutes to extend the Gators’ lead to 50-31 at the 17:52 mark.

Despite a quiet performance in the first half, junior guard Will Richard scored his first points of the contest on a putback layup after snatching a huge offensive rebound underneath the hoop.

A 6-0 run gave Florida its largest lead of the game at 64-35 with 13:55 left to play. However, holding on to leads late in games has been an issue for  Golden’s squad this season.

As the lead grew to 29 points, UF still needed to execute at a high level in the game’s winding minutes. 

Though, they refused to let this second-half lead slip away. Kugel continued his stellar play as he eclipsed the 20-point scoring mark for the fifth time this season.

“At halftime, the message was simple,” Golden said. “It’s time for us to grow up a little bit.”

The Tigers found a bit of a rhythm midway through the second half while going on a 5-for-6 shooting stretch from the field.

But instead of getting complacent, UF handled a desperate Tigers team in the second half. Auburn did not go on a run in the second half greater than 7-0, allowing the Gators to maintain control of the score. 

Florida held a 77-54 lead going into a media timeout with 3:37 left in the game. UF’s offense went stagnant down the stretch. The Gators went on an 0-for-14 shooting stretch and couldn’t seem to buy a basket in the final minutes.

But they used the free-throw line late in the game amidst their shooting woes to put the game out of reach. Clayton Jr. knocked down back-to-back free throws to extend the Gators’ lead to 81-63 with under one minute left as UF cruised to a victory.

Three Gator guards led the way for UF offensively. Kugel came off the bench and put together an impressive performance with a team-high 22 points. Clayton Jr. hit four 3-pointers in the matchup en route to another 20-point performance. Pullin rounded out Florida’s offense with 19 points, six rebounds and three assists.

“It’s a great, great program lifting win,” Golden said.

Next, Florida will face LSU on Wednesday in the O’Dome. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 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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