Once again, the Florida Gators practically pratfalled at the opening tip of an SEC clash, this time trailing Missouri 11-0 before the first segment of play had finished on Saturday in the O’Connell Center.
And once again, they won anyway.
The Gators tightened up on defense, made a lot of big shots, and cleaned up their sloppy play after halftime, erasing the Tigers’ early lead and building and defending their own in a 73-64 victory that gives them three straight in SEC play.
Colin Castleton, as usual, was the Gators’ fantastic fulcrum. While Missouri was able to deny him the ball and disrupt Florida’s offense early on as a result, Todd Golden’s adjustments and Castleton’s persistence led to a typically gaudy line of 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals, and two blocks.
Castleton also eclipsed 1,000 points for his collegiate career midway through the second half, and played excellent defense on Mizzou forward Kobe Brown, who did a lot of his scoring — on a fine but not fabulous 21-point day — with Castleton sitting or otherwise switched. And Missouri’s secondary scorers could not help Brown enough to keep pace with the Gators, with sharpshooter D’Moi Hodge hitting just one of five threes and mustering six points and point guard Nick Honor struggling mightily to a two-point day that featured just three assists and as many turnovers.
Castleton’s supporting cast, on the other hand, handled co-star duties beautifully. Riley Kugel led Florida with 10 points in the first have and sank three threes for most of his 13 points; Will Richard did Kugel one better with four threes and a team-high 18 points. Myreon Jones and Kyle Lofton also had eight points each, each hitting big shots down the stretch in the second half, and Lofton added four steals, while Jones dished five assists in his new and surprisingly well-fitting role as Florida’s secondary ball-handler.
After the Gators coughed up 14 turnovers in the first half, they gave away just five after halftime — and had just two for a significant stretch to begin it, a period of clean play that allowed Florida to build a 68-58 lead with two minutes to go.
And even when Missouri put on enough pressure to get within two possessions in those final two minutes, Florida had responses. On the offensive end, Lofton stepped back for a 19-foot two-pointer and swished it and Jones sank two free throws almost casually to both get Florida’s lead back to three possessions; on defense, Castleton smothered Brown on a closeout in the corner to snuff out a potential three, then intercepted a pass and came away with a steal on the Tigers’ final trip.
For Florida, this was a suggestion of what a complete game could look like, with their long-limbed defenders and Castleton’s control of the paint allowing for excellence in the half court and adequate shooting buoying their offense around Castleton. Of course, it also featured a double-digit deficit straight out of the chute — Florida’s fourth deficit of seven or more points in the first 11 minutes of play in as many games — that forced the Gators to come from behind and claw back into a contest.
Should this team figure out how to avoid that sort of immediate adversity and translate their post-deficit intensity into defending an early lead, though...