UF basketball exhibition win

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer

Florida’s re-tooled backcourt was a bit of a mixed bag during Monday’s 80-57 basketball exhibition win over Embry-Riddle University. 

Brandon McKissic scored a game-high-tying 20 points on 7-for-13 shooting, and much of the Ferguson, Missouri, native’s production came in the second half when the Gators looked to pull away. 

The Eagles cut UF’s lead to 41-37 less than six minutes into the final 20 minutes of play — then McKissic began to find his shot. 

The former Summit League Defensive Player of the Year poured in 14 of his points in the second half while connecting on 4-of-5 three-point attempts to erase any hope Embry-Riddle had of upsetting the new-look Gators. 

Florida sensed the advantage slipping and acted, McKissic said. 

Florida guard Brandon McKissic goes in for a layup Monday after making a euro-step move on an Embry-Riddle defender during a exhibition basketball at the Exactech Arena. The Gators got off to a slow start, but hot shooting in the second half led to an 80-57 win.

“We put each other on notice,” he said. “It was kind of getting too close and our energy was a little dead. We huddled up and we was like ‘hey, let’s kick it up a notch’. We hold each other accountable, regardless of the score.”

Although it’s no secret the point of an exhibition is to identify deficiencies and weaknesses in a contest that doesn’t factor into the win-loss column. 

“It's always important for us to play a high-quality exhibition, a high-quality scrimmage, and Embry-Riddle does a really good job. Coach (Steve) Ridder’s won a bunch of games and done it for a long time. They were really prepared, and it was again, defensively it was pretty impressive,” UF coach Mike White said. “You want to see that, you want to see some deficiencies. We saw some stuff at halftime, you know, we saw some stuff defensively that we didn't do a very good job with, and we'll see a bunch of over the next couple of days. Really break this thing down closely. Both offensively and defensively, and continue to learn really throughout the year, but especially in these early ones.”

Duruji leads in Florida’s frontcourt

Following junior forward CJ Felder’s arrival in Gainesville by way of Boston College, there was some belief the Gators would insert the 6-foot-7 transfer into the starting line-up alongside Colin Castleton from the jump. 

There’s still a week until the season-opener against Elon, though Anthony Duruji’s performance Monday indicated that may not be the ideal plan. 

Duruji had 16 points while connecting on all five of his field-goal attempts, good for second on the team in scoring against the Eagles, before fouling out in the waning seconds. 

The Germantown, Maryland, native also unveiled a noticeably larger frame after losing much of his physicality last season after contracting COVID-19 during the 2020-21 preseason, though the Gators just narrowly won the rebound battle, 41-39. 

It’s incredibly early, but that may not be the only change when it comes to Duruji. 

The newlywed appeared to play with more confidence on both ends of the floor, which may have surprised everyone except those who’ve watched Duruji grind in practice since last season’s disappointing conclusion. 

“In our postgame conversation, that was a topic that we covered. I asked the guys ‘who’s surprised that (Duruji) played the way he played tonight, and no one raised their hand. And what's the answer? The answer is why? Because that's what we see every day, you know, so it's not a surprise. And I'm not talking homeruns and highlights and that type of just– his approach has been really good consistently for a long time– six, seven weeks,” White said. “He hasn't had a bad day. He hasn't had a moment where he sulked, where he's made an excuse, where he just seems out of it. He's just played with maturity. He's playing like a veteran, high-character guy. And it carried over for him tonight.”

Gatkek takes advantage of early opportunity

The belief coming into the season was that freshman Kowacie Reeves, one of three underclassmen added to the Florida roster in the offseason, would be the lone player without Division I experience to crack Florida’s roster, and Reeves did show some flashes of potential Monday night despite a 1-of-6 night from the field. 

But the first underclassman to score against the Eagles wasn’t Reeves, but rather 6-foot-9 sophomore Tuongthach “Tuon” Gatkek. 

Gatkek entered the contest in place of starting forward Colin Castleton with 4:14 remaining in the first half, and it didn’t take long for the JUCO transfer to make an impact. Tyree Appleby found Gatkek under the basket on a fast break and the Portland, Maine, native slammed it home with two hands to push UF’s lead to 27-21; less than 45 seconds into his first taste of Power-Six basketball, Gatkek was on the stat sheet with his first bucket for the Gators. 

Gatkek’s early impact seemed to surprise everyone but his teammates and coaches. 

“That's the motor that he plays with every day, you know. He's got to gain some weight and some strength, he's got a lot to learn in many aspects, you know, of the game at this level, just like our other two freshmen, but it wasn't surprising that he impacted the game with his energy level,” White said. “He's going to, throughout the year, he's going to make some freshman mistakes, of course, and we'll expect that, but he was pretty good. Going into the game, did we expect to throw him out in the first 20, yeah we were going to try to, yeah.”

Up next

What: Florida opens the 2021-22 regular season

Who: Elon University vs. Florida

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Where: O'Connell Center

Online: SEC Network+

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM