UF closes out regular season with win over LSU
GAINESVILLE, Fla. - There was something missing from the home team Saturday night. The players and coaches could sense it and the scoreboard reflected it, with Southeastern Conference cellar-dweller Louisiana State on top of the host Florida Gators by four at halftime.
"Our energy was low," fifth-year senior point guard Kyle Lofton said. "We talked about it. We were sluggish."
That message was delivered to everyone in the UF locker room, but a little something extra nudge was put to freshman guard Riley Kugel.
"I was too lackadaisical in the first half," Kugel said. "I had a couple coaches come up to me and say to pick it up."
They did and he did. Boy, did Kugel pick it up.
Down a dozen early in the second half, the Gators unleashed a full-court press on the LSU that sped up the Tigers and turned misses and miscues into scoring opportunities, as the Gators reclaimed the lead. And then Kugel took over.
The 6-foot-5, 207-pound freshman from Orlando went on a late second-half tear by scoring 17 of his game-high 21 points, including a spree that featured a trio of 3-pointers, plus an old-time 3-point play, as the Gators completely flipped the game and momentum and ran away for a 79-67 win in the regular-season finale for both teams at Exactech Arena/O'Connell Center.
Riley Kugel (24) went 6-for-8 after halftime, including four of five from the 3-point line. After being held to just four points in the first half, Kugel hit six of eight shots after the break, including four of five 3s, and at one point scored 11 points during a pivotal 13-2 run when the Gators (16-15, 9-9) turned a close game into a double-digit lead. And speaking of double digits, Kugel hit them for the eighth consecutive game (the most by a UF freshman since Bradley Beal went 10 straight in 2012), a streak in which he's averaged 18.3 points and shot 54 percent from the floor.
"Riley was great again tonight," UF coach Todd Golden said.
So was sophomore guard Will Richard, who three days after tossing in a career-high 24 in a road win at Georgia posted 18 points, six rebounds, two assists and a pair of steals. Richard went 7-for-10 from the floor, with some huge buckets to keep his team in the game (before Kugel went nuts), and was three of six from the 3-point line. Fifth-year point guard Kyle Lofton, one of three UF players honored during pregame "Senior Night" ceremonies, had 16 points, five rebounds, five assists and two steals.
"You don't come back and win a game like this without multiple really good efforts across the board," Golden said.
That includes on the defensive end, where UF used its full-court pressure to help hold the Tigers (13-18, 2-16) to just 36.7 percent after halftime and just 1-for-5 from the 3-point line. The Gators, meanwhile, slogged at 38.7 percent in the first half and trailed by a dozen four minutes into the second, but rallied to make 53.3 percent for the period, including 15-for-25 from the floor (60.0 percent) over the final 15 and a half minutes.
Four nights after scoring a career-high 24 in a road win at Georgia, sophomore guard Will Richard (5) went for 18 against the Tigers and shot 70 percent from the floor. LSU was led by 19 points from forward KJ Williams, the league's No. 2 scorer, but UF held one of the conference's best 3-point shooters (42.5 percent coming in) without a make from deep on three attempts.
Yet, it didn't look good for the Gators early in the second half. Not at all.
"The first four minutes of the second half, I believe, we went plus-eight into the first media timeout," Tigers coach Matt McMahon said. "At that point, [Florida] changed it up and put us in positions to make plays and unfortunately we were unable to do so."
The Gators, conversely, were very able to do so. It started, notably, just after the Tigers took a 44-32 lead with 15:41 to go, when Kugel drained a 3-ball. Over the next 90 seconds, Richard scored an "and-1" 3-point play and Kugel made his second 3 of the game. The LSU lead was just four and that energy UF was missing earlier was taking over the O'Dome.
"The press affected them a lot," Kugel said. "They were out of control. We didn't let them initiate their offense and play like they wanted to play."
The Tigers led by one, 53-52, when backup wing Kowacie Reeves (8 points, 4 rebounds) snuffed out a pass at the top of the key, swiped it in stride and ran out for a slam-dunk that gave the Gators their first lead since midway through the first half. LSU took it back on a post-up from forward Derek Fountain (13 points, 12 rebounds), but Richard got open for a back-door layup to go in front again.
After a stop, UF was in a late-clock situation when Kugel drove into the paint and had his shot blocked, caroming him off him and headed out of bounds. He grabbed the ball and shoveled it in the direction of the Florida bench, where Lofton was set up. Lofton caught the pass and buried a 3 as the shot clock expired for a four-point lead with just over five minutes.
One of a handful of "winning plays," Golden called them, his guys made in the second half.
Thirty seconds later, Kugel nailed 3 to push the Gators up by eight and kick in his spree of 11 points during the put-away run that assured UF - significantly undermanned after losing soon-to-be three-time All-SEC selection Colin Castleton to a season-ending broken hand on Feb. 15 - would avoid its first losing record since 2014-15, while locking up a No. 8 seed in next week's Southeastern Conference Tournament. Florida will play ninth-seeded Mississippi State (20-11, 8-10) in a Thursday afternoon second-round matchup.
Fifth-year senior Kyle Lofton, the transfer from St. Bonaventure, gets a victorious "Senior Night" embrace from Coach Todd Golden after scoring 16 points, grabbing five rebounds and dishing five assists in his final home. "I'm really proud of our team, our program. We had a big hill to climb with losing Colin down the stretch and it would have been very easy for our guys to pack it in and just get to the finish line," Golden said, heaping praise on Kugel, Reeves, Lofton and others about their effort and, again, the "winning plays" that showed up at critical times this game. "I love this team, but we're not talented enough not to be that [winning play] team. When we are that team we can play with anybody."
When Kugel is that guy - the one he's been the last eight games, making step-back 3s, driving Euro-steps in the paint and getting a shot whenever he wants- the Gators have a different kind of guy to play through. A very, very good one who is coming of age.
"It's a blessing to be here," Kugel said. "I love this team."
UP NEXT: Florida (16-15, 9-9) will be the No. 8 seed in the SEC Tournament at Nashville, which begins Wednesday night with play-in games among the bottom four seeds. The Gators will face 9-seed Mississippi State (20-10, 8-9), which plays at Vanderbilt later Saturday, but will get the 9-seed over 10-seed Arkansas based on head-to-head result. UF defeated Mississippi State 61-59 at Starkville on Jan. 21, but were bombarded by Bama 97-69 on Feb. 8. Both of those games, of course, were played with fifth-year forward Colin Castleton, the team's scoring and rebounding leader who is out for the season with a broken hand.