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Florida 88, Kennesaw State 78: Colin Castleton dominates as Gators fend off Owls

A pesky team with some streaky scorers never let Florida open up a massive lead on Friday night. But the Gators’ big man never let them get too close.

Syndication: Gator Sports Alan Youngblood/Gainesville Sun / USA TODAY NETWORK

On Friday night, the Florida Gators encountered a much tougher foe in Kennesaw State than they defeated in their record-setting season-opening rout of Stony Brook.

But Colin Castleton plays for the Gators. And he’s pretty tough — and really, really good.

Castleton scored a career-high 33 points, divvying up 19 to the first half and 14 to a second half the Gators played without starting point guard Kyle Lofton, and filled the stat sheet besides that, lifting Florida to an 88-78 win over the Owls.

Castleton’s first half looked like one that had him en route to a huge night and Florida on pace for another comfortable win, with his usual variety of post moves and soft-touch jumpers allowing him to score at will against the undersized Kennesaw State frontcourt. But the second half might have been more important, as Lofton picking up a fourth foul on an arguable call and then a fifth, seconds later, in the form of a technical foul assessed for arguing his case a little too stridently, left Florida without its point guard for the final 12 minutes of play just a couple of possessions after Lofton stroked a three to put the Gators up by double digits.

A flurry of fouls that followed left the game feeling like one the Owls could seize control of — but Castleton got a layup to get Florida back to another double-figure lead heading into the under-12 minute TV timeout, and in the four-minute period that followed, he had two steals, an and-one finish, and a dunk, helping to keep Kennesaw State multiple possessions from tying or taking the lead.

The Gators would never quite put the game away by building a huge lead, failing to convert 15- and 16-point advantages into 20-point gaps — an item of possible interest to those aware of the 20.5-point line available at some establishments — thanks largely to lackadaisical defense outside of some blocks from Castleton and Jason Jitoboh. The Owls shot just 43 percent from the floor, but made six of 17 threes and got 11 rebounds; that plus their mere seven turnovers (and their 20 fouls being disproportionately shooting fouls, giving Florida 33 free throws) allowed them to take 70 shots to Florida’s 55, which might have been more of a problem had both sides not made 30.

Will Richard (a mostly quiet 15 points) and Kowacie Reeves (11 points, punctuated by a punch of a dunk and two late threes) joined Castleton in double-figure scoring, with Lofton chipping in nine points prior to his disqualification.

And though Alex Fudge had his own quieter game than Florida’s opener with just six points off the bench, Riley Kugel continued to flash his excellent potential in his minutes, linking up with Fudge for a fine alley-oop, flushing his own highlight-reel dunk, and eliciting a more-correct-than-sacrilegious Keyontae Johnson comparsion from color analyst Patric Young, who worked his first in-person game for ESPN since the car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down this summer.

Will Florida be able to keep winning if it has to get Herculean nights from Castleton to cover for a defense that showed far more pliability on Friday than it did on Monday? The jury’s certainly still out, and with former Florida assistant Dusty May bringing a different set of Owls — Florida Atlantic’s swoop troop — to Gainesville next Monday before Florida heads to Tallahassee to take on a scuffling but talented Florida State team next Friday, there are new, different, and likely tougher challenges that this week presented in the near future.

But Florida has its fulcrum in Castleton, and has pieces around him that have the potential to be levers for winning in their own right.

It’s up to Todd Golden to see if he can arrange and oil all those parts into a machine.