Florida’s first half in the Donald L. Tucker Center — home to so many bad memories for the Gators men in recent years — was the stuff of nightmares.
If you sleepwalk in nightmares, anyway.
The Gators shot poorly, defended worse, got called for two technical fouls, and generally looked outclassed and outfought by a short-handed and winless Florida State team in those first 20 minutes, going into the locker room down 43-26.
But in the first five minutes of the second half, the Gators were wide awake — and good enough to leave anyone watching wide-eyed.
Within the first five minutes of the second half, Florida slashed that halftime deficit to a single point, and over the next five, the Gators completed a ferocious 33-5 run that gave them a lead they would defend well down the stretch to earn a 76-67 triumph that was both their first in Tallahassee since 2012 and a testament to what this team is capable of when it asserts itself on the floor.
That temperament was missing in the first half, as Florida scuffled and struggled in several ways. Most notably, the Gators could not produce anything consistently on offense, with FSU shading its defense to deny Colin Castleton touches after he got an offensive rebound and a dunk to put Florida up 3-0 in the early goings. FSU staged a 10-2 run to snatch the lead, then another 10-0 run to get a double-figure advantage, and a Gators squad that made just three of its first 19 shots had no answers.
Worse, uneven officiating cost Florida two points on free throws for a technical foul for a flop by Trey Bonham that appeared questionable on replay and another tech on Alex Fudge for some combination of calling “and one!” and glowering at an FSU player after dunking through contact — and Fudge was caught on ESPN cameras apparently yelling at Florida coaches after that foul was assessed.
But Bonham, Castleton, and Fudge would all figure prominently in Florida’s comeback.
The diminutive Bonham sparked much of Florida’s post-intermission push, hitting a three for the Gators’ first points of the second half and chipping in five points and three assists during the 33-5 span. Given a large number of touches by more persistent offensive focus, Castleton stamped his usual dominance on the game, ultimately ending up with 25 points and nine rebounds after spending the second half going on, through, and over defenders around the rim.
And Fudge? Well, he just exploded for one of the greatest dunks in Florida’s history.
That annihilation of 7’4” Naheem McLeod — who would later foul out with zero points after what would have been a long night of being bullied by Castleton and Jason Jitoboh even without having Fudge elevate above him with malice — counted for half of Fudge’s mere four points on the evening. But it was emblematic of a half he spent using his athleticism to make winning plays away from the ball and the rim, as he collected four boards and two blocks — one of the sensational chasedown variety, which averted an FSU layup that would have cut Florida’s lead to seven points during a ragged stretch in which the Seminoles could have responded to the Gators’ surge with a run of their own.
That was not to be — and, despite slowing down considerably on offense to finish the game, Florida’s comeback from 17 down was completed, giving these Gators the second-largest comeback from dire straits at intermission in program history.
How impressive the result of a nine-point win really is against FSU — which played just nine players, made three of its 16 threes, had 16 turnovers, and dropped to 0-4 for the first time since 1959 — is debatable.
But for a night, these Gators suggested that there’s a chance their best ball makes them look pretty close to unbeatable — and, with a superlative stretch of play, earned a memorable rivalry victory.