Florida Gators come back to win first-round NIT matchup with Iona

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

Al Pinkins’ tenure as Florida Gators interim head coach isn’t over yet. 

No. 3-seeded UF, having trailed for the first 30:30 of game-time against No. 6 seed Iona, used a 16-3 run to turn the tide and ultimately secure the upset of the Rick Pitino-coached Gaels, 79-74, Wednesday at the Exactech Arena in the first round of the NIT.

The Gators trailed by seven at halftime after Walter Clayton Jr.’s three-pointer narrowly beat the buzzer, but UF, coming off an overtime game it never led in regulation, continued chipping away at the deficit. 

Kowacie Reeves hit a three-pointer to open the second half, one of three successful three-point attempts for the freshman on the night, and cut Iona’s advantage to four, though the Gaels would answer on the next possession with a long-range shot of their own. With the score tied at 72 with 2:06 remaining, Colin Castleton flushed home a two-handed slam off of a baseline out of bounds play.

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UF would force Elijah Joiner into a low-percentage shot attempt on the next possession, and Phlandrous Fleming would extend UF’s lead to 76-72 with 1:23 remaining after Niels Lane corralled the long rebound. Joiner fouled out with 32 seconds remaining, and the Gators proceeded to close the game at the free throw line, setting up a second-round matchup with No. 2-seeded Xavier this weekend.

"It was very emotional for coach, for sure," guard Tyree Appleby said of Pinkins' head-coaching debut with the program after Mike White departed for Georgia. "I think going on in the tournament, we're going to give him some more wins. We're going to try to finish strong and get him a championship for his first time as a head coach."

Here are 3 takeaways from Wednesday’s contest. 

Kowacie Reeves follows career-high with impressive start

Following his 21-point outburst over the final 25 minutes in UF’s loss to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament, Reeves was inserted into the starting rotation against Iona. It wasn’t as productive of a performance as his showing in Tampa six days prior, but Reeves made the most of his opportunity, finishing with 14 points and six rebounds. Reeves flushed home a pair of two-handed dunks early into the contest, as well as UF’s only two makes from beyond the arc in the first half, giving him a team-high 11 points in the first 20 minutes of action.

He picked up right where he left off in the second half, hitting UF’s first three-pointer out of the break to trim the lead back to two possessions. 

It marked the freshman’s ninth start of the season. 

Reeves' teammates, who have seem him progress since arriving on campus as a highly recruited signee, didn't hesitate to heap praise upon him. 

"He's a pro, he will be a pro. He has that pro drive. He's a worker, and that's going to set him apart from a lot of people," Fleming said of Reeves. "He's open to learning everything — from us, from coaches, from anybody — and he's very open and very humble. I'm so proud of who he's become."

Phlandrous Fleming, Brandon McKissic get first taste of postseason

Graduate transfers Fleming Jr. and McKissic had never made a postseason tournament prior to arriving at Florida. Not the College Basketball Invitational, nor the NIT, and certainly not the NCAA Tournament, meaning Wednesday marked the first taste of postseason action for the pair. 

Fleming helped carry the scoring load for the Gators, finishing with a game-high-tying 18 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Fleming, a former two-time Defensive Player of the Year at Charleston Southern, was a significant factor on the defensive end. He had a pair of blocks and two steals in 31 minutes against Iona.

"I felt great. It feels good everytime I get out there with my brothers," Fleming said. "We've been through a lot this year, like, this whole year, we've been about resiliency, and we've just been doing that every game. Everyday we just go out and work, and it felt really good to go out there and get a win today, because I'm not ready for it to be over with these guys."

McKissic didn’t score in the contest, though he did dish out three assists in his 19 minutes. 

Florida’s victory over Iona also marked the postseason debuts for freshman Elijah Kennedy and sophomore Tuongthach Gatkek. Kennedy was held scoreless in four minutes, while Gatkek converted both of his field-goal attempts to finish with four points in six minutes. 

Colin Castleton not done competing

Despite missing the NCAA Tournament, Castleton wasn’t ready to end his season just yet. Rather than begin his offseason recovery for the left-shoulder injury suffered Jan. 17, Castleton was active from the opening tip Wednesday night. He finished with 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting in 33 minutes.

As the game clock reached the 10-minute mark of the second half, Castleton followed an Appleby miss at the rim to tie the game at 58. The Gators, despite missing Anthony Duruji and CJ Felder due to injuries, managed to win the rebounding battle, 39-37. Castleton had a game-high 13 rebounds for the Gators. 

After the game, Pinkins addressed Castleton's injury situation and publicly revealed the DeLand native's diagnosis. 

"He tore his labrum and could have just said 'hey I'm going to sit the rest of the year, have surgery'. He decided to battle through and come back and play," Pinkins said. "I expect nothing new, nothing different from Colin. It never crossed my mind that he would opt out playing in this tournament." 

Castleton confirmed Pinkins' belief — he wasn't missing the contest with the Gaels, potentially his last game in Gainesville, to get surgery.

"I wanted to hoop, that's what I wanted to do. That's what I love doing, so it would be hard for me to sit out there and not play, when they're all fighting, playing as hard as they can," Castleton said. "I already sat out a bunch of games this year, and yeah, I just wanted to help them get a win. Because you don't want the season to end and I don't want the season to end."