After Kentucky sprang from the gates in fine form against Florida on Wednesday night, the Gators could well have folded and conceded to the Wildcats.
Instead, even without Colin Castleton, they fought — and though that fight was only enough to earn an 82-74 loss, it and the flashes shown are reason for hope for the future.
The brightest of those flashes on this night was unquestionably Riley Kugel. Florida’s star freshman had a career-best night with 24 points, splashing in four threes and adding two rebounds, two assists, and a steal to his scoring. His shot was as wet as it has been as a Gator, he repeatedly worked to get good shots both beyond and inside the arc, and he made six of seven free throws, including all three crucial ones after being fouled on a three late in the game.
Kowacie Reeves had his share of spotlight moments, too, with his 16 points off the bench coming partially via a couple of massive dunks and two high-arcing threes.
But Kugel colliding with Niels Lane — also a bright spot, with a season-high eight points off the bench and his usually stifling defense — on a late possession allowed Chris Livingston to get Kentucky’s 13th and final offensive rebound and an and-one that extended the Wildcats’ lead to five points after Florida had cut a nine-point edge at the under-four timeout to just two.
Reeves had three turnovers in a 43-second span in the late second half, on a bad pass, an offensive foul, and a failed spectacular dribble attempting to set up a three that instead gave Kentucky a run-out alley-oop.
And Lane contributed his stellar defense and a few fine moments on offense, but also mustered two of Florida’s worst shots on the night, crucially tossing up a bad miss with Florida down seven and following an Oscar Tshiebwe turnover that counted as a rare mistake on the night by Kentucky’s big man.
It’s not fair to harp on those best performers’ mistakes, perhaps, given that those three Gators combined to almost double up (48) their teammates’ scoring (26). And if those errors hurt badly in the moment, the aggregate failure for Florida on this night was on the glass, where Kentucky held a 40-21 advantage, with Tshiebwe (15 rebounds) and Jacob Toppin (11) alone outrebounding the Gators.
With Castleton in the lineup, that surely wouldn’t have happened — and, probably, Tshiebwe wouldn’t have dominated both in the paint and as a midrange shooter, getting his 25 points on 12-for-13 shooting that was only marred by an ill-advised turnaround fadeaway.
But right now, and likely for the rest of time, Florida no longer has Castleton — and so it doesn’t have much margin for error, even if its effort yields some magic from Gators who will be around to make more in years to come. It cannot fall behind by a 30-15 count and then storm back — all the way to a halftime lead! — without expending a lot of the energy that would have been vital later. It cannot play Jason Jitoboh and Aleks Szymczyk in Castleton’s stead without giving opponents significant advantages inside. It cannot afford to have just a few of its many other pieces intended to complement Castleton excel in his absence; as this season draws to a close, the Gators must pick each other up together like Castleton often did alone.
For tonight, the flashes of magic were only enough for a valiant loss or a moral victory.
Real wins feel better. They will come at a time when the flashes blur together.