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Florida 81, Milwaukee 45: Gators poach Panthers with smothering defense

Florida turned a lottery pick into a bum ticket.

NCAA Basketball: Wis.-Milwaukee at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off an emotional victory over a rival on Sunday, the Florida Gators could have been forgiven for taking it a little easier against Milwaukee on Thursday.

Instead, they might need to ask forgiveness for poaching some Panthers in Florida.

The Gators smothered Milwaukee — and likely early NBA Draft pick Patrick Baldwin — from the opening tip, then built a colossal lead that ballooned to 37 in the second half with an extended 35-9 run out of halftime, ultimately settling for a 81-45 win that could have been even more lopsided rather easily.

Colin Castleton led all players with 19 points and 10 rebounds and paced four Gators in double figures — including Phlandrous Fleming, who had 12 points off the bench for his first double-digit night of scoring as a Gator — as they strolled away from the Panthers, who shot just 32 percent from the field and failed to score a field goal for 11:32 of the second half.

Only a late spurt — 14 of the game’s last 27 points after trailing 68-31 — allowed the Panthers to escape the possibility of being doubled up. And Baldwin, whose silky shot and elongated frame brought dozens of NBA scouts to Gainesville, fizzled on the night, sputtering to 13 points on 15 shots, missing all three of his triples, and turning the ball over three times.

Baldwin did author a nifty finish to the first half, tapping away a pass, running out, and making a behind-the-back move to get a layup that cut the Florida lead to 33-22 at intermission.

But Tyree Appleby drained a three for Florida on the Gators’ first possession out of the locker room, and while Baldwin answered immediately with a layup, Florida’s response to that was a 29-2 run that ended with 8:09 left in the second half.

Florida also recovered from a slow start from distance, finishing with 11 threes on the night, and got its 81 points with the aid of just eight free throw attempts. The Panthers, by contrast, made two of 12 threes, and shot 13 free throws — but made just one more shot at the line, seven to Florida’s six.

And when they did make their late push, with Joey St. Pierre and Markeith Browning scoring eight points in a 10-0 run, the Panthers were met by another combination — a 13-4 close that safely made Florida’s third win of the young 2021-22 season its largest yet.

With a couple of potentially tough opponents on the docket in the Fort Myers Tip-Off next week, Florida making it through the week of Thanksgiving without taking a defeat might still not transpire. What the Gators have done to their opponents so far, however, suggests that handing them an L is going to be a difficult task for almost anyone.