The Florida Gators found themselves in a position reminiscent of recent meetings against Georgia on Saturday, trailing by as many as 13 points in the first half after a lethargic and lackadaisical start.
But as they did more than once under former head coach Mike White, the Gators roared back to take control of the game, then held off a hard-charging team — only this time, they did that to White, not for him, earning an 82-75 victory over Georgia to avert an 0-3 mark in SEC play and keep their season from running entirely off the rails.
White was obviously familiar with Colin Castleton’s defense and versatility — he had seven blocks and five assists to go with his 12 points and eight rebounds — but the Gators who made the biggest differences in this game were arguably Todd Golden’s imports. Kyle Lofton had 18 points and three assists — two of them on dishes to Riley Kugel for alley-oop dunks in the game’s final minute — in his finest game since transferring from St. Bonaventure to Florida, Belmont transfer Will Richard had 14 points and a quiet-but-important nine rebounds, and freshman Kugel provided eight points and some necessary hustle off the bench.
But that “arguably” is important, as Castleton, Myreon Jones (13 points, three boards, two assists, three steals), and Kowacie Reeves (12 points, five rebounds, three assists) — all returnees from last year’s Florida roster, which failed to translate early-season success into an NCAA Tournament berth, likely guiding White’s decision to leave Florida for Georgia at season’s end — all carried their loads, too.
And if Florida won this one with a mix of players new and old, it also did so with a blend of styles and signatures reminiscent of White’s time and emblematic of Golden’s. The big comeback against a team that starts hot in SEC play, and the runs that fired up the O’Dome crowd? We saw those throughout White’s tenure. The shortened rotations on days when things weren’t going well for some Gators? That’s more Golden. Defense fueling offense and a flurry of threes by the opponent keeping a game close and taut? Well, those hallmarks have carried over from one coach to the next.
That last thing, about the sudden hot shooting? It was an uncanny talent for White’s Florida teams, which perpetually made close games of sizable deficits with a three or two — or four, or seven — while trailing. Georgia appeared to have the same trait on this day.
After Florida finished flipping the script entirely on the Dawgs, going from down 13 in the first half to up five at halftime after a 21-4 run to close the half to up 13 after an Alex Fudge three midway through the second half, Georgia got hot, making six threes in the game’s final 10 minutes to help shave the Florida lead down to three points at three separate junctures.
Bradley transfer Terry Roberts — whom White wooed to Athens over Gainesville last spring — had a chance to get the lead to three points for a fourth time down the stretch with just under a minute to play, too, but he split two free throws to leave Florida a four-point edge.
And then the Gators ran an audacious play for a game-closing possession, with Kugel cutting from the corner and catching a cross-lane lob from Lofton to slam home an alley-oop putting Florida up by six.
HOW BOUT THAT.— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) January 7, 2023
Lofton throws it up kugel slams it down
That sort of emphatic, cathartic home win — in which there was both a deficit to overcome and a stretch of inspired play that overcame it — was also familiar, as Florida claimed that sort of triumph often under White. His teams were not as dominant nor as successful as desired by a fan base that enjoyed the ultimate glory during Billy Donovan’s time, and those wins were offset by more than a few losses, hard-fought or not.
When the Florida Gators were at their best under Mike White, though, it often coincided with players making plays despite having long odds against them — with perseverance, persistence, and passion that made us proud even if it also made us wonder where that intensity was for the other moments of the game.
This year’s edition of the Gators has had a lot of that same determination to it, but had only really earned a win in that vein once — and on the road, against an emaciated Florida State. This win, against a Georgia team clearly fighting its hardest for its coach in his return to old stomping grounds, is a new, wholly welcome one for Todd Golden.
White will be back as often as Georgia is, and might well turn the Dawgs into a respectable SEC outfit. But for Florida, this Saturday was a chance to turn the page, to turn over a new leaf, to turn into Golden’s team a little more.
They did all that. And they won. And it must feel so, so good.