After a tense and even first half that ended with the Florida Gators and LSU Tigers deadlocked at 40, Michigan transfer Colin Castleton asserted himself as maybe the best player on the court in Gainesville on Saturday, pouring in 17 points over the first eight minutes of the second half and staking the Gators to an eight-point lead at the under-12 media timeout.
At the under-eight media timeout, Florida led by eight. At the under-four media timeout, Florida led by eight again. And when it was all over, Florida had won.
But the final margin of just four — Florida 83, LSU 79 — is a sign that these Gators are both good enough to beat good teams and not nearly good enough to let up and do so with any regularity.
Castleton’s 21 points led the way for the Gators, and his flurry in the second half — on an assortment of moves to get free for easy twos and an alley-oop — temporarily floored an LSU team that had no answer for him during the torrid stretch. But outside of that run out of half — which featured Castleton scoring Florida’s first 15 points of the second period and culminated with a Tre Mann three to put Florida up 62-52 — these were two teams playing rather even ball, with LSU’s success from distance early helping the Tigers lead for much of the first half and Florida’s patient offense helping the Gators maintain their advantage in the second.
Cameron Thomas poured in 28 points for LSU to lead all scorers, but needed 19 shots — and 11 free throws, all makes — to get that gaudy total, and while Trendon Watford (21 points) and Javonte Smart (20 points) joined him on the 20-point plateau, they combined to shoot just 21-for-50 from the floor, with whistles that allowed LSU to shoot 25 free throws helping the Tigers compensate for getting no more than four points from any other player on the day.
And while Florida spread out its scoring among its starters — Mann, Scottie Lewis, and Anthony Duruji combined for 52 points, none of the three scoring more than 19 or fewer than 16 — the Gators got just four points from their bench, which struggled, with Omar Payne getting whistled for four fouls and Tyree Appleby coughing up five turnovers.
If this game was decided by anything in particular other than Castleton’s charge, though, it was probably Florida finding ways to turn weaknesses into strengths over the course of 40 minutes. The Gators were pounded on the offensive glass early, but ended up doing about as much damage as the Tigers did on second shots by game’s end, with Duruji pulling down six offensive boards; likewise, Florida made 20 of 23 free throws after entering shooting 72.6 percent from the line on the year, and Lewis drained seven of his nine free throws and all but one of his six in the final minute to keep the Tigers at arm’s reach.
Florida still has copious room to grow and develop, and will need to do so if it is going to have any hope of reaching the heights that were possible with Keyontae Johnson on the floor rather than in a chair marked “Coach Key,” as he was on Saturday.
This win was a promising first step up.