The Gators picked up a much needed road win at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia on Saturday, beating South Carolina 71-63. Going into the game 0-3 in SEC play and having lost six of their last nine, Florida desperately needed a favorable result to get back on track. They got that behind a great team effort on both ends of the floor and now look to build off of it as they move into the grind of conference play.
Smooth sailing for most of half 1
The Gators were in control for about the first 17 minutes of the first half. Offensively, the Gators were getting buckets from all different sources, with eight of the ten guys who got minutes scoring. This was a welcomed sight for them, as the likes of this had not happened since early in the season and was much needed in order to take some of the pressure off senior center Colin Castleton, who draws constant double teams.
Florida shot 50% from the floor as a team going 14-28 heading into the locker room and were shooting the ball with a lot of confidence, something that they haven't been doing a lot of lately.
Their ball movement was crisp and they shared the ball well, with ten assists as a team and were finding other ways to score than usual by utilizing back door cuts for easy layups and a lot of off ball movement. Florida got some big contributions from their freshman, too, with guard Kowacie Reeves having 7 points and shooting 3-4 from the floor and guard Elijah Kennedy going for 5 points, 1 rebound and 1 assist off of the bench in the first period of play.
Defensively, it was business as usual for the Gators as they forced seven turnovers and got seven points off of those turnovers in the first period. Their defensive pressure was giving South Carolina fits and was causing them to have to wait until late in the shot clock to start their offensive sets, making it very difficult for the Cocks to find any rhythm offensively. The Gators' lead could've been even bigger, but the Gamecocks showed fight in the final three minutes and cut the game to eight behind a late 5-0 run, leaving Florida up 36-28 at the half.
Weathering the storm in half 2
While Florida continued to play well on both ends, the Gamecocks showed more of that fight they displayed in the final three minutes of the first half in half number two. The Gators could not find a way to stretch the lead out, with South Carolina having a response to every big bucket.
About midway through the half at around the 11 minute mark, the Cocks switched out of their man-to-man defense into a matchup 2-3 zone. This was done to try and limit the ability to dump the ball down low to Castleton and force the slumping Gators to shoot 3's. And for a little bit, it worked. South Carolina cut the Gators' lead all the way down to four with about nine and a half minutes remaining in the game. They also owned Florida on the defensive glass, bringing in 21 offensive rebounds as a team for the game.
For the next four minutes or so the game was back and forth. The turning point came with 5:48 left, when guard Brandon McKissic hit forward CJ Felder on a rolling lob play to put the Gators up 60-49. A few possessions later, guard Phlandrous Fleming Jr. answered a Gamecock 3 with one of his own when he hit a step back dagger late in the shot clock to give Florida a 65-52 lead.
The Cocks made another late run, getting it down to a six point deficit at 69-63 with a minute remaining. That's when Kowacie Reeves made the play of the game in my opinion, saving a ball from going out of bounds into Gator hands with one second remaining on the shot clock and forcing South Carolina to foul with under a minute left. Guard Tyree Appleby stepped up and hit two free throws to put the game on ice and give Florida a massive 71-63 road victory.
Final tallies and what's ahead for the Gators
Freshman guard Kowacie Reeves gets the game ball for me, finishing with 14 points, 2 rebounds and 2 steals on 4-6 shooting from the field. His impact was felt outside the stat sheet as well, making some huge plays on both ends of the floor, including that save with under a minute to go. Senior center Colin Castleton had a very good game as well for the Gators, finishing with 10 points, 7 rebounds and a monstrous 8 blocks on 4-7 shooting from the field.
As a team, Florida shot very well from the floor finishing 27-49 (55.1%) for the game. They shared the ball well, too, with 17 total team assists. The free throw shooting was a little better than Wednesday night, going 10-15 (66.7%) from the line as a team. The Gators still struggled taking care of the ball, turning it over 15 times for the game. That number has to come down and get down into the low teens or, even better, single digits if they want to continue to have success. They also attempted 26 less shots than the Gamecocks, something that has been an issue through the first four games of conference play and that needs to improve because that is not a trend you want to continue. If you are getting outshot by a significant margin every game then it's going to be very tough to outscore teams in the deep SEC.
Overall though, it was a good win for the Gators and one they should look to build on. The high shooting percentage, high assist tally and having numerous guys contribute in the scoring department as a team are things that they need to have every game and continue to emphasize if they want to make the jump back to being a legit team. Next week brings two tough teams to Gainesville, with the 11-4 Mississippi State Bulldogs coming to town on Wednesday night and the scrappy, 9-6 Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday afternoon. If the Gators have any hope of getting back into the mix in the SEC as a legit team, they are going to have to strap up and come to play next week at home.