After Riley Kugel went to the bench with two fouls, Florida and LSU played a ragged end to their first half in the O’Connell Center on Saturday night, with the Tigers going into halftime with a four-point lead. Then LSU won the first segment of the second half, running roughshod against the Gators and building a 12-point lead.
But Kugel — and a surprisingly effective adjustment from Todd Golden — would not let the Gators lose.
Kugel scored 21 points, 17 of them both in the second half and specifically after LSU took that 12-point lead, and a menacing Florida press overwhelmed the Tigers in the second half, leading to a 24-point turnaround in the final 16 minutes and a 79-67 win for the Gators.
Kugel’s second half was a bravura perfomance even for the emerging freshman, as he splashed in four threes of generally increasing difficult to help Florida storm back on and steal away from LSU, with a nifty in-air adjustment on a lay-up finally pushing the Gators’ lead into double digits.
And he was also instrumental in Florida’s switch to a full-court press, which ate up LSU — and specifically talented but coltish freshman Jalen Reed, an erstwhile Florida signee who ended up in Baton Rough after Mike White left Gainesville for Georgia last year. Reed had four of LSU’s 13 turnovers to offset his six points, seven rebounds, and three assists, and LSU’s struggles to advance the ball through Reed while KJ Williams (19 points, nine rebounds) sat for most of the second half with foul trouble turned the game around.
For Kugel, scoring in double figures for the eighth straight game put him in the company of Bradley Beal among Florida freshmen. For Will Richard, an 18-point, six-board, two-assist, two-steal performance continued a strong week after a career-best 24 points against Georgia. For Kyle Lofton (16 points, five assists, five rebounds, and a clutch three on a chaotic possession with the shot clock drained), Jason Jitoboh (six points, four boards), and Myreon Jones (a game-capping corner three), this was a Senior Night sendoff that can be relished in years to come.
For Golden, it was a seventh win in seven games against other first-year head coaches in SEC play — perhaps a bit of vindication in a season that Florida won’t end in the NCAA Tournament barring a run to an SEC Tournament title but might end in the NIT thanks to a fine final week of the regular season.
And for the Gators, it was yet another comeback from a second-half deficit — something that has been part of the identity of the program not just under Golden but White. While falling behind — sometimes by significant margins — in games is obviously a fate better avoided, and something Golden will surely work to avoid in years to come, the resilience of these Gators has been something to admire.
As the last vestiges of the last Florida coach’s era give way to the standard-bearers of the present one, it’s at least comforting to have that bit of the sunset glow brightly in orange and blue.