Florida Gators overcome slow start to top South Florida at Orange Bowl Basketball Classic
SUNRISE — Florida overcame a stagnant start to defeat South Florida 66-55 Saturday in the Orange Bowl Basketball Classic.
In the first meeting between the state schools since 2002, it was USF (4-5) that looked like the more poised team in the early going, pressing the Gators (8-3) into 10 turnovers within the first 14 minutes – including three straight possessions.
But UF settled down behind a vicious defensive performance, getting 12 points apiece from forward Colin Castleton and Phlandrous Fleming Jr., off the bench.
Florida found its first lead of the game with just seven minutes left in the first half before the teams traded points on the ensuing possessions.
Myreon Jones hit a clean triple and Castleton slammed down an emphatic dunk that helped kickstart a 17-2 run down the first-half stretch – and the Gators were able to withstand a furious Bulls' second-half rally to secure the win.
“South Florida is a team that is as sound and physical and disciplined defensively, especially on the half-court, as you’ll see across the country,” Florida coach Mike White said. “They make you fight for every inch on the court. They make you fight for every open shot you can find, if you can find one. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a good ‘W’ and we’re ready to get back home.”
Here are three takeaways from the Gators’ win.
Gators’ strength lies in defensive identity
While the offense continues to navigate through its unusual slump, the defense was strong yet again for the Gators on Saturday.
Florida tallied three steals, six blocks, and dominated the glass with 45 rebounds, grinding out a win despite shots that simply weren’t dropping.
“To be honest this year, we’ve struggled with field-goal percentage and we all know that,” Castleton said. “Everybody’s working on what they need to do to get shots, to get a rhythm going, but that takes care of itself. You really can’t control when the ball actually goes in or not. You can control how hard you play on defense, rebound, all the little stuff that helps you actually win games.”
White pointed toward the Bulls’ defensive strengths as part of the reason for the Gators’ offensive inconsistencies, explaining that the Bulls made some good individual plays that disrupted the Gators early on.
Even so, the scoreboard gap began to shrink whenever the Gators’ defensive intensity grew slack – and White wants to see that pressure continue until each whistle.
“When it got really tight there, I thought we tightened up defensively in a positive way,” White said. “We certainly did that when we needed to do it. We want to do it for 40 (minutes). Hopefully we can do that in our next one.”
Scoring woes continue to hold Florida back
While it was the defense that won the game on Saturday, it did so nearly in spite of the offense, leading White to suggest that the “law of averages" will kick in as the season goes on.
“We’ve got to find a way to make some shots,” he said. “That’s on us and our staff as much as it is anyone. A lot of this is trial and error. We’re going to continue searching, because we’re better shooters than this. I believe they’ll go down.”
They weren’t dropping on Saturday, as the Gators limped to a 42 percent field goal percentage, shooting just a hair north of the 30 percent mark from beyond the arc.
It was the fourth time this season Florida failed to reach the 70-point mark, and perhaps more worrying is the fact that all of those games have come within the last five contests.
“We’ve got to do a better job moving forward with hits,” White said. “Mentally, when we don’t score versus physicality, we’ve got to stop looking at the officials. We’ve got to find a way to score through contact.”
The Gators did manage two positive runs in the contest, the first - the 17-2 run - South Florida coach Brian Gregory called the difference-maker in the game.
White eyes search for consistency, cleaner play
While the Gators will go home with the win, this is not the same team that started the season with six straight wins, and it certainly seems like a long time ago that Florida reached No. 14 in the college basketball rankings.
The question marks are still there, and White knows that adjustments need to be made if the ship is to be righted.
“I thought we had a really good early second half, extended the lead a little bit, but credit those [USF] guys,” White said. “They continued to fight and made it really interesting – more so than it needs to be for us if we want to progress.”
In a game defined by hot streaks, the Gators too often appeared lukewarm against an opponent that had had its own bevy of issues on both sides of the ball this season.
“We turned the ball over way too much at the beginning of the game, and we let it get to us,” Anthony Duruji said. “We were able to get out of it, but we’ve got to cut down on our turnovers.”