Florida basketball: 3 takeaways from the Gators' 67-54 upset of No. 2 Tennessee

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun

Florida basketball summoned enough resolve to pull off its biggest win of the Todd Golden era.

The Gators revived their NCAA Tournament hopes with a 67-54 upset over No. 2 Tennessee before an announced 10.160 at the O'Connell Center that required both mental and physical toughness.

"It's a little bit of a culmination of the work we've put in," Florida coach Todd Golden said. "Obviously this team has had a lot of ups and downs in terms of the results in games. I felt strongly and I talked to the guys about that we're better than the record indicated, even through some of those stretches."

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Florida (13-9. 6-3 SEC) pulled off its sixth win against a top 2 ranked opponent in school history and second in as many years. Last season, the Gators upset No. 2 Auburn 62-61 on Feb. 17, 2022. The Gators also picked up their second Quad 1 win of the season, improving to 2-7 on the season in Quad 1 games.

It was a game in three acts, as Florida found itself up 17-4 early, down 44-38 with 10:40 remaining and down 46-42 with 8:58 to go before surging to a 13-0 game-altering run that put the Gators ahead to stay.

Florida shot 43.8 percent from the floor, 35 percent from 3-point range (7-20) and posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 12 to 10 against a Tennessee defense that entered the night leading the SEC in scoring defense at 54.5 ppg allowed. The Vols dropped to 18-4 overall, 7-2 in the SEC and had their modest four-game win streak snapped.

Florida guard Will Richard celebrates with fans after the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Youngblood)

"Give Florida credit," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "They played good basketball and we gave them a chance to start believing in what they were doing and they executed.”

The 37-year-old Golden, who is in his first year at Florida and is the youngest coach in the SEC, received congratulations from one of his mentors, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, on Twitter following the game. Golden was a staff member and assistant at Auburn under Pearl from 2014-16.

"We've played a lot of good tough teams this year and we've been in good close games, we just didn't do what we needed to in order to close them." Florida center Colin Castleton said. "Tonight was a desperation game. We have a tough schedule with this little stretch we have, we've got to win some games ... we were able to just claw and fight and come out on top."

Castleton led Florida with 20 points and 9 rebounds, with point guard Kyle Lofton adding 14 points and 4 assists.

Here are three takeaways from Florida's win Wednesday night:

Gators establish Colin Castleton inside

Florida was able to get the ball inside to Castleton throughout the game and the 6-foot-11 All-SEC center delivered, going 6 of 13 from the floor and 8 of 8 from the foul line.

Castleton drew five fouls in the game, a big reason why the Gators were able to get in the bonus at the 10:09 mark in the second half. Florida cashed in at the foul line, making 15 of their first 16 free throw attempts before finishing the game shooting 75 percent (18-24) from the foul line.

Golden said he was surprised that Tennessee double-teamed Castleton in the first half, considering the Vols often play single coverage in the post. But that Castleton made the right reads and found open players on the perimeter.

"In the second half we were able to get him some middle of the floor catches where he was able to drive against those bigs," Golden said. "Made the right play, three assists to two turnovers. Had some big finishes, but the 8 for 8 from the line was humongous, just to make every single one of them. That's a senior stepping up in a huge game."

Castleton scored five straight points during Florida's 13-0 run, converting on a three-point play and inside basket that put Florida up 52-46 with 6:46 remaining. He scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half.

"They went small and I feel like I had a mismatch." Castleton said. "If a team guards me one-on-one I've just got to take advantage of that because I haven't seen that a lot this year, a lot of double teams and triple teams."

Getting out on the break

Florida was able to push the ball for easy baskets, outscoring Tennessee 10-0 in fast break points.

Freshman guard Riley Kugel came up with one of the biggest fast break baskets, going coast to coast off a turnover to give Florida to 47-46 lead with 8:18 remaining, which got the crowd back into the game.

Defense steps up

Even though Tennessee hoisted up 20 more shot attempts (68) then Florida (48), the Gators remained mentally strong on the defensive end of the floor, limiting the Vols to 29 percent (19-68) shooting from the field.

The Vols grabbed 18 offensive rebounds but only converted them into 16 second-chance points as Florida maintained its energy and focus in second and third-shot defense.

"We knew it was going to be a dogfight rebounding but I think our tram showed a lot of growth from it," Lofton said. "Usually we get beat on the boards the game is ugly but today we fought back, we didn't let it discourage us."