Florida vs. Kentucky score, takeaways: Gators falter late, give away SEC opener to No. 6 Wildcats

By OnlyGators.com Staff
January 6, 2024
Florida vs. Kentucky score, takeaways: Gators falter late, give away SEC opener to No. 6 Wildcats

Image Credit: UAA

The Florida Gators looked primed for a monumental win under second-year head coach Todd Golden as SEC play opened at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Saturday. Instead, Florida found itself unable to score down the stretch as the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats pulled away for a 87-85 win in Gainesville, Florida.

The Gators have now lost five straight and 10 of the last 11 meetings to the Wildcats with six straight defeats in Gainesville — all since 2019. Florida led for the vast majority of Saturday’s contest but nevertheless fell short once again.

Let’s take a look at what went wrong in the O’Dome.

It was over when … the buzzer sounded. Two free throws — and a purposefully missed third — were not enough from freshman center Alex Condon as the Gators imploded offensively over the final 4 minutes of the game. Florida committed a turnover and shot-clock violation on consecutive possessions before allowing a wide-open 3-pointer as Kentucky jumped ahead 79-76 with 81 seconds left and never gave up its lead.

Sophomore guard Riley Kugel, who regained his form in the first half, struggled massively over the final few minutes with two turnovers and sloppy ball-handling. UF’s only hit two field goals over the final 4:11, but both were redshirt senior point guard Zyon Pullin driving the lane attempting to score quick baskets as the Gators tried to come from behind. They missed four in a row preceding those layups as the offense stagnated.

Florida saw its eight-point advantage disappear just 5 minutes into the second half as Kentucky went on a 14-4 scoring stretch to open the period, though UF did quickly regain the lead. The Gators started 0 of 7 from downtown in the period until Pullin hit the lone triple of the second half (1 of 11) to put his team up 68-63 with less than 7 minutes remaining. However, the Wildcats tied the game with 2:14 to play and never trailed again.

First half focus: Florida used a 15-4 run to jump ahead 19-12 as Kugel scored seven straight points off the bench, following a missed layup, grabbing a steal for a fastbreak score and breaking an 0 of 18 drought from beyond the arc with a 3-pointer. However, Kentucky forced low-percentage shots and beat UF down the court consistently in transition as it fought back to tie the game at 27. The Gators bounced back with a 12-2 stretch on the back of another trey from Kugel and two from junior G Walter Clayton Jr. to lead by 10, and they added a banked-in 3-pointer by Pullin — from 40 feet away with the shot clock expiring — to go up as many as 11 in the period. UF ultimately took an eight-point lead into the break while holding UK to just two assists with seven forced turnovers by halftime.

Exceptional efforts: Clayton and Pullin each posted a game-high 23 points along with 3 assists, though Clayton went a paltry 3 of 11 from downtown, including 0 of 4 in the second half. Still, they combined to go 9 of 11 from the charity stripe, while the rest of the team went 9 of 18.

Good, bad and ugly: Kugel broke out of a multi-week funk with 15 points and four rebounds, including two triples in the first half to snap that aforementioned 0 of 18 streak entering the game. However, he came apart in the second half and not only fouled out but committed three turnovers, including two in the latter minutes. Kugel has now given the ball away 37 times this season, an average of three turnovers per game. Ball handling remains an issue, and it sees like when something goes wrong for Kugel, he allows one miscue to pile on top of another.

What happened? Redshirt senior forward Tyrese Samuel, Florida’s most consistent player this season, was completely neutralized. Though he grabbed seven boards, he only went 1 of 6 from the field with 3 points and could not get anything going offensively with surprisingly limited touches. Junior G Will Richard was horrendous, going 0 of 8 from the field with seven (!) missed 3-pointers.

Odds & ends: Florida is now 1-10 against Kentucky since 2019 with five straight losses in the series … the Gators have not defeated a top-six Wildcats team since 2005 … Golden is 0-3 against Calipari … Florida is now 41-110 against Kentucky all-time with a 26-41 record in the O’Dome, including six straight defeats at home … this was the Gators’ first home loss this season … Saturday marked the first SEC opener between the sides in 25 years and first in the O’Dome in 45 years … Florida suffered rare losses this season when leading a halftime (9-2), leading with 5 minutes left (9-1) and outrebounding an opponent (9-3) … the Gators are 1-18 under Golden when being outshot from the field (2-12 when an opponent shoots 45% or better) and 0-3 in orange uniforms

What it means: Florida has once again proven it can compete with any team in the nation … and Florida has once again proven that it cannot be considered one of the best teams in the nation. The Gators just do too much wrong too consistently to beat top teams, this despite leading for 28:35 and only allowing the Wildcats to hold an advantage for 5:25. UF got the job done on the offensive glass with an 11-8 rebounding and 16-13 scoring edge, but it left 11 points at the free throw line in a 2-point game, shooting 18 of 29 in the contest. Florida entered ranked 313th nationally at the charity stripe, putting them in the 11th percentile among 351 NCAA teams, and it only shot worse Saturday.

The Gators settled for way too many 3-pointers, particularly in the second half when they were not falling, with Golden failing to get the ball inside so his team could run offense. Florida’s inability to execute offense in the halfcourt cost it the game, and it played tight the entire second half despite being at home with the advantage for most of the contest.

The positive is that this Gators team is only 14 games into playing as a unit, 11 with Pullin running point. They still have every chance to put together a successful SEC campaign and may play far better a couple months from now, but this was a prime opportunity to beat a top-10 team at home and kick off the SEC slate with momentum, one Florida did not grab.

What’s next? Another rough note for the Gators is that they will play three of their next four games on the road over the ensuing two weeks. That starts Wednesday as Florida visits Ole Miss for a 9 p.m. ET tip off that will air live on SEC Network. The Rebels are currently undefeated and among the teams ranked in the AP Top 25 poll.

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