GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Leonard Hamilton smiled throughout his post-game news conference Friday night, a lot more than he smiled through the previous two-plus hours of watching his Florida State squad get bludgeoned by its cross-state rival.
For 20 minutes, the Florida Gators were damn-near perfect and that was plenty good enough to finish off an 89-68 obliteration of the Seminoles before an ecstatic and energetic crowd of 10,000-plus at Exactech Arena/O'Connell Center.
"I don't know that I can remember being down by 30 points at the half - ever," Hamilton said. "That's how well they played."
A few minutes earlier, UF coach Todd Golden was saying pretty much the same thing, but from the winning team's perspective.
"The first half was something we can point to and say, 'We can play with anybody,' " Golden said.
The Gators (3-1) shot 64.3 percent, including 6-for-12 from the 3-point line, and smothered the Seminoles (2-1), who never led, into a 25.8-percent clang fest in that first half. Together, those numbers netted UF a 52-22 lead at intermission that turned out to be plenty big enough to overcome a second half that wasn't nearly as sharp - How could it be? - but every bit as physical as the first.
The result was a third straight win for the Gators in the series, as well as the widest margin of victory over the Seminoles since a 72-47 trouncing at Tallahassee on Dec. 5, 2012.
Frankly, it may have been one of the funnest nights for an O'Dome crowd in a long time. It certainly was satisfying the guys in the home locker room.
"To put it simple, I have a big hatred for Florida State, just to be honest with you all," said junior guard Walter Clayton, the Iona transfer from Lake Wales, Fla., who led all scorers with 19 points to go with five assists and a pair of steals. "I have too many people in my family who are Florida State fans and I gotta hear their mouth -- but they're going to be very quiet tonight."
Also contributing to the Seminole silence were a pair of grad transfers in point guard Zyon Pullin and Tyrese Samuel, both of whom tallied 15 points. Sophomore guard Riley Kugel had 10 points, freshman forward Thomas Haugh led the team with a career-high 10 rebounds and freshman 6-foot-11 center Alex Condon scored nine points, grabbed six boards and blocked two shots.
Pullin, by way of California-Riverside, made his Florida debut after sitting out the season's first three games because he played in three exposure games at the Portsmouth Invitational during his time in the NBA evaluation process last spring. In addition to his those 15 points, his first game as a Gator netted five rebounds, four assists and just one turnover.
His chemistry alongside Clayton - with everybody, actually - was evident from the outset.
"In practice, you can see it click, just kind of feeding off each other," said Pullin, the 2023 first-team All-Big West Conference selection. "I think we complement each other well."
Added Clayton: "Me and 'ZP,' we're just on the same page."
And that page made for some awfully good reading for the Gators, especially those first 20 minutes when UF raced to that 30-point lead. The game was a hack-fest mess at times, with 48 fouls - including three disqualifications and three technicals - leading to 68 free throws. Still, UF went on to shoot nearly 51.7 percent for the game, limited FSU to 36.4, including just 2-for-13 from the 3-point line, and won the battle of the boards 48-33.
As lopsided as those final numbers were, they were far more upside down before intermission.
"That was an incredibly high level of basketball we played, I thought, at both ends," Golden said of the opening period. "That's what we had kind of seen at times from our group in preseason, and just really proud of our effort. Obviously the second half was a little back and forth, a lot of fouls, a lot of free throws, both ways got a little chippy, which can happen in a rivalry game. But again, it never really got under 20, and that was a statement game tonight for us."
The opening four minutes or so featured a lot of pushing and some chirping, but eventually the Gators took off and took complete command. The score was 8-4 when they commenced a run of 19-1 that included five 3s (two each from Clayton and Kugel, plus Haugh's first of his career) to make it 27-5 when FSU called a timeout at the 10:59 mark.
Seminoles guard Cam'Ron Fletcher broke the UF spree with a 3-pointer, but the next time down floor Gators guard Will Richard drove the baseline, left his feet and did a hanging reverse layup in traffic that spun into the bucket and blew the roof off the place.
Even Richard thought it was SportsCenter Top 10 material.
"At least No. 7 or 8," he said.
It was that kind of night.
Kugel was fouled jacking a 3-pointer with 0.1 second to go in the half. He hit two of three free throws and followed his team to the locker room up 30 and not a lot for the coach to complain about.
"A rivalry game, you get them coming in your own gym, you have a chance to make a statement. What are you going to be about? Are you going to take care of your home court or are you going to allow another outcome to happen?" Golden said. "Again, I thought from the jump, we did a really good job of making sure that people understood that this game was really, really important to us."
Hamilton, coaching his 22nd UF-FSU game, certainly could tell as much.
"I think you have to give the Gators a thumbs-up for how they were emotionally and mentally prepared for the game," he said. "They seemed to have what we call that 'magic level' of focus and attention to detail."
Not sure if it was magic, but the best of Florida Friday was definitely next level. With Pullin in the lineup, this team is now whole and likely looking to settle in on its rotation. This game was something they'll try to build on; something they believe they will build on.
Or, as Richard put it, "We're only going to get better from here."