3 takeaways from Florida Gators men's basketball team's comeback win vs. Mississippi State

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer

The Florida Gators men's basketball team rallied back in the second half to defeat Mississippi State 80-72 on Wednesday in Gainesville.

Anthony Duruji had a game-high 22 points, his most as a Gator. Tyree Appleby chipped in 17 off the bench.

Here's three takeaways from Florida's second straight SEC victory:

Last time:Florida men's basketball finally wins SEC game, downing South Carolina 71-63

Gators football:Reports: Florida hiring NFL assistant as co-defensive coordinator on Billy Napier's staff

Taking it up to 10:Top-ranked Florida Gators rally to defeat No. 11 Alabama in SEC gymnastics match

Analysis:Gators pass their first post-Colin Castleton test, but more are coming fast for Florida basketball

Jitoboh huge late in Castleton’s absence

Florida forward Colin Castleton missed UF’s 80-72 comeback victory over Mississippi State with a shoulder injury that UF coach Mike White described as “significant” in the aftermath of Wednesday’s victory for the Gators. 

“He had no chance of playing tonight,” White said. “Really unfortunate for Colin and his teammates, but his teammates rallied. They got it done, and they were connected. I’m really proud of these guys.”

Florida Gators center Jason Jitoboh (33) yells in celebration as he dunks the ball against Mississippi State in their SEC basketball game at the Exactech Arena, in Gainesville, Jan. 19, 2022. The Gators beat the Bulldogs 80-72.

Castleton was announced as unavailable for the contest less than an hour prior to tip-off, making way for junior forward Jason Jitoboh to record his first career start. The seldom-used Jitoboh appeared overmatched early on both ends of the floor – a far cry from Castleton's dominance in the low post this season. He’d finish the first half with three fouls and no points in just five minutes of play, leading White to try junior C.J. Felder and sophomore Tuongthach Gatkek at the center spot in search of an answer to Florida’s newfound frontcourt woes. 

“I was not sure it was the best decision to put him back in there in the first half,” White said. “It was risky.”

But Jitoboh came alive in the second half, scoring all eight of his points in the final 20 minutes of play as the Gators pulled out the unlikely victory. With Castleton, UF’s leading scorer and rebounder, out for the foreseeable future, the Gators can take a bit of solace in knowing Jitoboh may prove capable of holding his own in the interim. 

“Down the stretch, he was very good, both offensively and defensively,” White said of Jitoboh. “He’s a consistent guy, especially these past few months. He just kind of stays the course. He’s a guy that, at times, hasn’t got much opportunity, but he’s got a great attitude.”

Duruji has career night

He was hardly the only member of UF’s frontcourt to step up late against the Bulldogs, as fifth-year forward Anthony Duruji scored a UF-career-high 22 points on an efficient 6-of-8 shooting from the field. Duruji was held in check early by the MSU low-post duo of Garrison Brooks and Tolu Smith, leading to just four points in the first half. 

The transfer from Louisiana Tech stepped up in the second half on the offensive end, however, while adding five steals in 17 minutes of play over the final stretch. 

“Oh my goodness, he was huge,” White said of Duruji. “He was terrific defensively, running through passes, finishing. His skill-level has improved. His overall level of confidence.”

White put Duruji’s ongoing progression into better perspective, saying he didn’t focus on competitive basketball until early into his high school career.

“He started playing at a really late age, I want to say 14 before he even touched a basketball,” White said. “He’s just come a long way. He’s as good of a guy as you could coach, and I’m happy for him. His motor has improved as much as anything.”

Freshman earning his place

Kowacie Reeves Jr. continues to solidify his spot in Florida’s rotation. 

The highly regarded freshman, who scored a career-high 14 points in UF’s win at South Carolina, provided another double-digit scoring while making his second consecutive start for the Gators. 

“It’s been huge, and it’s not like – people talk about waiting his turn and stuff like that, but he just brings it everyday. He’s just taking advantage of opportunity,” White said of Reeves. “He’s got a chance to be a good player.” 

The Macon, Georgia, native tied his career-high with another 14-point performance against the Bulldogs. Reeves and senior guard Tyree Appleby, who finished the game with 17 points off the bench, combined to go 7-of-15 from long-range in another impressive showing from Florida’s backcourt. Considering the circumstances, there was much to celebrate. 

Florida Gators head coach Mike White gestures to a referee during the game against Mississippi State.

“To beat Mississippi State without Colin Castleton, these guys should feel good about themselves,” White said. “But we’ve got to get ready for a really good Vanderbilt team on Saturday.” 


Who: Vanderbilt at Florida 

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

TV: SEC Network

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM