UF basketball: Gators unable to match Kentucky's length, athleticism, aggressiveness

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer

Florida’s hopes of getting back on track following a 15-point loss Tuesday at Alabama didn’t come to fruition Saturday, as the Gators turned in their lowest-scoring performance of the season in a 76-58 loss to Kentucky.

The 18-point defeat tied Florida’s worst loss at home under coach Mike White. 

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Who: Ole Miss at Florida

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850 

“They were much better than us tonight,” UF coach Mike White said, “to say the least.”

Anthony Duruji had a game-high 15 points on 6-for-13 shooting and Tre Mann had seven points, six rebounds and three assists, but the story for Florida (5-3, 2-2 SEC) was the lack of offensive execution coupled with frequent defensive lapses.

The Wildcats (4-6, 3-0) scored 15 points off of nine UF turnovers in the first half to take a 35-29 lead into the halftime break, and any chances the Gators made in the interim didn’t help turn the tide. 

Kentucky’s lead reached 21 with just under 10 minutes to play, as Florida utilized the full-court press defense in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the ‘Cats. 

Gator Nation responds:Fans mad at Mike White after home loss to Kentucky

Tyree Appleby, the only other Gator in double-digits with Duruji, scored 10 points in 23 minutes in his first start at Florida after transferring from Cleveland State prior to the 2019-2020 season. 

“I think they were just better tonight,” Appleby said of the Wildcats. “They just came out strong tonight, and we’ve just got to get better.”

Florida forward Colin Castleton is blocked by the Kentucky defense Saturday at Exactech Arena.

UK was led by 13 points apiece by freshman Brandon Boston Jr. and Davion Mintz in helping secure its third consecutive conference victory after a rocky start to the 2020-21 campaign. 

Florida will have another attempt to right the ship Tuesday when the Gators host Ole Miss at 7 p.m. in the Exactech Arena. 

What We Learned

After registering two points Tuesday on 1-for-6 shooting while playing just 20 minutes due to foul trouble in Tuscaloosa, sophomore wing Scottie Lewis wasn’t much better offensively Saturday against Kentucky. 

Lewis again tallied just two points, the lowest-scoring output of UF’s starting five, while attempting just four shots from the field. Unlike the 15-point loss to the Crimson Tide, it wasn’t from a lack of action either as Lewis played a team-high 32 minutes. 

Asked if Lewis’ consecutive subpar showings were indicative of a larger problem, White dismissed the notion, saying his ineffectiveness was a credit to how teams are playing him. 

“I think a lot of it has to do with the way he’s being defended. I don’t think we had great ball movement tonight,” White said. “He made some cuts where he was open and we didn’t get it to him. He did have a really nice cut there in the second half along the baseline that led to positivity, but I think for the most part he’s a guy that we’re not playing through in terms of him being a ball-handler.”

White added that for the Gators to improve, they must get Lewis involved further on the offensive end — and he must continue to search for ways to attack the opposition’s defense.

“We probably got to do a better job moving forward to get him some more opportunities,” White said of Lewis, “and he’s got to continue to learn as well off-the-ball how to search for openings and looks, and he’s got to be effective on the offensive glass and in transition offense he’s got to pick his spots.”

Locke moves to reserve role

Junior shooting guard Noah Locke became a starter for the Florida men’s basketball team as a freshman, and it’s a role he’s held onto despite various ailments and the arrival of highly touted newcomers — that is, until Saturday. 

Locke came off the bench, with the Gators opting to start Tyree Appleby in the backcourt alongside Mann, and the Baltimore native finished with five points in 23 minutes. 

Although Locke hasn’t necessarily been lighting up the scoreboard consistently this season, White said the decision to start Appleby was more of a credit to the latter’s play rather than an indictment of the former after Appleby registered a team-high 18 points in Florida’s loss at Alabama. 

“That decision was based on, I thought he played as well as anyone last game,” White said. “Who knows who will start Tuesday. Tyree brought us a lot of juice again tonight. He’s a better ball-handler and decision-maker than this, he’s got to settle in — all of us did.”

As for Locke, White was content with his performance while noting he’s too talented of a scorer to be turning in streaky showings. 

“I thought that Noah had one of our best plus/minuses, I thought he played pretty hard, I thought he was sound defensively, the same thing as Scottie — we wish we could have found him some more looks,” White said of Locke’s performance against Kentucky. “I thought he responded well, and that’s what he’s got to do.”

Improvements made despite result

There’s no moral victories — not when every result matters in qualifying for the postseason, as is typically the case. 

But White noted the Gators did improve in various departments, and the team has several aspects to continue building on before hosting the Rebels in less than 72 hours. 

The loss may have been embarrassing, but the ball’s in Florida’s court when it comes to making certain the result wasn’t all for naught.

“I thought we were really good on the offensive glass, but we just couldn’t convert a lot of them,” White said. “The fight that we played with the last eight to 10 minutes (was promising).”

White singled out freshman Samson Ruzhentsev for contributing late as well. The former five-star signee poured in eight points, including 2-for-2 from beyond the arc. 

“I thought Sam getting in there and playing with some confidence, I mean he’s a kid, has he had any opportunity, have we even thrown him out there — I’m not even sure,” White said, “and the kid hasn’t said a word. He works every day, he comes and brings it, he’s got some toughness, he’s got a lot of confidence. And he goes out there and bangs a couple threes, made a couple free throws. Those are some positives there.”

Finally, after criticizing the team’s urgency in transition defense after watching film from the loss at Alabama, White said he “definitely” saw improvement over the course of the game. The key for Florida now is increasing the rate of effectiveness.

“We weren’t able to effectively set our press in Tuscaloosa, and so we were exposed with our transition defense, which again we’re used to our press putting us in a situation where we’re in transition defense less,” White said. “Tonight I thought the first half, I didn’t think we were quite as good at setting our press as we were in the second half. I thought our press was effective for us in the second half. That said, not effective enough. The hole that we had dug was a little bit too big.”

Kentucky 76, Florida 58

KENTUCKY (4-6)

Sarr 5-8 0-0 10, Ware 0-0 0-0 0, Askew 2-5 4-4 9, Boston 3-8 6-6 13, Mintz 5-7 1-1 13, Brooks 6-8 0-0 12, Allen 2-5 0-0 6, Jackson 4-7 1-2 9, Toppin 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 29-52 12-13 76.

FLORIDA (5-3)

Castleton 3-8 0-0 6, Duruji 6-13 1-2 15, Appleby 4-9 1-3 10, Lewis 1-4 0-0 2, Mann 2-9 1-2 7, Locke 2-7 0-0 5, O.Payne 0-1 2-4 2, Glover 1-1 0-0 3, Ruzhentsev 2-2 2-2 8, Osifo 0-2 0-0 0, Lane 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-56 7-13 58.

Halftime_Kentucky 35-29. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 6-13 (Allen 2-3, Mintz 2-4, Askew 1-1, Boston 1-2, Sarr 0-1, Brooks 0-2), Florida 9-20 (Ruzhentsev 2-2, Duruji 2-5, Mann 2-5, Glover 1-1, Appleby 1-3, Locke 1-4). Rebounds_Kentucky 26 (Brooks, Jackson 6), Florida 28 (Mann, O.Payne 6). Assists_Kentucky 18 (Brooks 4), Florida 11 (Mann 4). Total Fouls_Kentucky 14, Florida 12.

Kentucky guard Brandon Boston Jr. (3) soars in for a slam dunk Saturday against Florida at Exactech Arena.