Florida men's basketball finally wins SEC game, downing South Carolina 71-63
Florida snapped its winless start to Southeastern Conference play by downing South Carolina, 71-63, on the road Saturday.
The Gamecocks struck first, but that would be the high point for the home team as the Gators led the rest of the way behind a balanced scoring attack. Each of the 10 UF players who saw the floor in Columbia connected on a field-goal attempt, with Phlandrous Fleming Jr. leading the team in scoring with 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 26 minutes.
It was a return to form for Fleming, who’s struggled in SEC play after entering health and safety protocols following winter break.
“I thought that he was more locked into playing within himself, to playing for his teammates, making simple plays,” Florida coach Mike White said. “I thought he played more level-headed, with more maturity. He’s always going to play really hard, Phlan is. He’s ultra competitive.”
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Reeves, Fleming push UF early
Fleming started the game alongside true freshman Kowacie Reeves Jr., who finished the game with a career-high 14 points, five of which helped pace Florida in the early going.
Reeves scored UF’s first points of the afternoon, then Fleming hit from outside the arc to give Florida a 5-2 advantage. Reeves added one of his own from long-range, too, giving the Gators an 8-2 lead before the under-16 timeout.
Reeves pointed to a familiar face for helping him compete with a clear head: forward-turned-pseudo coach Keyontae Johnson.
“I’m just remembering to pay attention to detail and a lot was just playing basketball," Reeves said. "Like, Keyontae always told me, like, just play basketball when you get out there. Don’t think too much, because he told me at times I look like I’m out there just trying not to hurt, not really just playing basketball.
"So once I just played basketball, but also had that same edge and pressure on myself defensively, everything just came together.”
As highly regarded as Reeves is from an offensive standpoint, his defensive play has determined his usage thus far on the upperclassmen-heavy Gators. While there’s still room for improvement, his growth to date is why Saturday’s performance was a possibility.
“Just keep playing defense. Honestly, that’s what everyone’s telling me. So that’s what I focus on: defense, just making sure we’re getting stops collectively when I’m in the game, just all the defensive stuff,” Reeves said. “And once that happens out on the floor, I mean, if you’re out on the floor, opportunities are going to come to make shots.”
Getting back to basketball
It wasn’t just Reeves who was stressed by the Florida coaching staff on the importance of simplification – the message to the entire team in the build-up to Saturday’s performance was rather simple: just play basketball.
Easier said than done, of course, but the intention was to have the Gators compete with more confidence. To play with greater conviction was the mantra during the team’s practices after the loss to LSU, and White felt as if Florida listened.
“Overall, especially in the first 20 to 30 I thought we played with a lot of confidence offensively. We moved pretty well, we shot it with more confidence, we thought about the result a little bit less,” White said. “That’s how you’ve got to play. You’ve got to believe in yourself. Step up, jump up and knock a shot in. Kowacie did a good job of that, of course, as well as a couple of other guys.”
It was a far better game for Florida’s guards. Tyree Appleby had six assists and finished with a team-high plus/minus of plus-11, while Brandon McKissic hauled in six rebounds despite going just 1-of-3 from the field. Myreon Jones came off the bench and had seven early points to pace UF’s early push.
And the frontcourt combination of Anthony Duruji, CJ Felder and Jason Jitoboh combined for 14 points on an efficient 6-of-7 shooting.
Regardless, there’s still plenty of room for improvement – UF is still just 1-3 in conference play, so no time to get comfortable.
“In the locker room we enjoyed the win. Road wins are hard to come by in this league, in 2021 especially. South Carolina’s going to win a bunch of games. They already have and they’ll continue to win. They’re really hard to beat here. That said, did we put 40 together? I thought we got kind of casual late but the amount of stuff these guys have been together as of late, I think it was probably a big sigh of relief, we’re in position here. We’ve got to finish a little bit better but defensively for the most part, we didn’t make a lot of mistakes.
Castleton stays consistent
With Florida’s struggles as of late, Colin Castleton’s continued dominance on the low block has flown under the radar.
The senior forward had another impressive all-around performance for Florida while consistently facing multiple defenders, though it wasn’t as much of a necessity considering the Gators had success from outside early into the contest.
The DeLand native finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and a career-high-tying eight blocks.
Double-digit scoring nights – or afternoons – have become the norm for Castleton, but it doesn’t make it any less impressive. However, what stood out the most Saturday was his effort on the defensive end, said White, adding Castleton’s play has been aided by Jitoboh’s ability to stymie UF’s preseason All-SEC starting forward.
“Colin, despite the lack of touches, was just terrific defensively,” White said. “Colin’s having a really good year individually, and a lot of it is because of Jason’s development and his recommitment to becoming the best teammate he could be, the best player he can be. And obviously, in-game he helped for sure.”
Who: Mississippi State at Florida
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday
TV: SEC Network