Gators bully Seminoles to snap losing streak in series

Florida State has developed a very distinct reputation under coach Leonard Hamilton in recent years. Defensively, they’re going to use their incredible length and physicality to limit the amount of open looks that you get and force turnovers. Offensively, they’re going to grind out possessions and use their size to wear you down throughout the game.

The Seminoles used that formula to defeat the Gators seven consecutive times from 2014-20.

On Sunday afternoon inside Exactech Arena, the Gators decided that they had finally had enough. They took Florida State’s game and shoved it right back in their face.

Florida held FSU to 38.5 percent shooting. They used their own defensive pressure to force 17 turnovers that resulted in 20 points. They blocked 10 shots and outrebounded the Seminoles by 11 despite being at a severe size disadvantage. In the second half, when the game was on the line, they limited the Seminoles to 33.3 percent shooting and just 25 points.

The Gators combined that tremendous effort on defense and on the boards with a game-ending 31-13 run to defeat No. 20 Florida State, 71-55.

“They’ve had a great run, and we have great respect for their program and how good they’ve been for a long time,” UF coach Mike White said. “It was a big win for us. Florida State, year in and year out, they’re a very, very good team. They’re tough. They’re relentless. This year, too. They’re a very, very good team.”

Offensively, the Gators (2-0) only shot 38.7 percent themselves, but they scored 43 points in the second half thanks to five made three-pointers and 12-for-13 shooting from the free-throw line.

“We tried to simplify our approach a little bit offensively,” White said. “They’re so disruptive. They’re terrific defensively, one of the best defensive programs in the country, of course, year in and year out. I thought we had pressed the right buttons leading into this one. Then, in the first half, all of us collectively, players included, just made some subtle adjustments in terms of getting Colin [Castleton] to the block a little bit quicker in some possessions.

“Colin played with some mismatches there in the second half, which allowed him some scores, but it also allowed us to attack some close-outs, and some of those drive-and-kick threes were because of the attention that he demanded on the interior. I thought he was terrific offensively.”

Indeed, Castleton was a beast on both ends of the floor, finishing with 15 points, 16 rebounds and six blocked shots in 33 minutes. He played a huge role in UF outscoring FSU 32-22 in the paint.

“Just taking pride in it, just not letting anybody feel comfortable when they get inside the paint and around the rim because I take pride in that,” Castleton said of his shot-blocking prowess. “When we’re on defense, that’s my rim.”

Castleton joined Joakim Noah as the only Gators since 1996 to post a 15-point, 15-rebound, 5-block stat line.

His frontcourt mate, Anthony Duruji, also came up huge. He scored 15 points, pulled down seven rebounds, blocked two shots and came away with a couple of steals.

“Duruji is as consistent as a guy in practice that we’ve had,” White said. “It’s started to carry over to games, of course, this year. He was really good and brought great energy. We were able to play some small ball with him. He literally guarded one through five for a lot of the game. He stepped up and made some big shots, and he continues to be on the offensive glass.”

Myreon Jones (12 points, six rebounds), Brandon McKissic (12 points, three rebounds) and Phlandrous Fleming (nine points, five rebounds) provided the scoring punch from the perimeter and did an outstanding job blocking out larger players on rebounds.

Point guard Tyree Appleby only scored five points on 2-for-10 shooting, but he had a terrific floor game with five assists and just one turnover in 29 minutes.

The first half and the first part of the second half was like a heavyweight boxing match. Both teams played with great intensity on the defensive end of the floor and made life miserable for the other team.

From about the 11-minute mark of the first half to around the 9-minute mark in the second half, neither team led by more than four points. There were eight ties during that stretch.

“It was such an ugly game in the first half,” White said. “If it wasn’t ugly, it probably would have been to our detriment because it was a slugfest, both teams defending and rebounding at a high level. I thought both teams midway through the first half looked tired at times, which is a little bit unique for it being that early in the game. Two teams that played really hard and laid it on the line.”

Then the Gators went on a 13-0 run in 3:02 to seize control of the game.

“Finishing some stops, getting out in transition,” White said. “Made some solid decisions again with drive-and-kicks. Guards played pretty well. It wasn’t perfect, of course. Two teams, a slugfest, very physical, hard-played game that I’m sure both of us this early in the season will be able to learn a lot from in terms of what they see from the film.”

The game-sealing run started when Castleton secured an offensive rebound and made a layup to give them a 45-44 lead. Then Appleby rebounded a missed shot by FSU and went coast-to-coast for a layup.

McKissic drained a three on their next trip down the floor. A couple of free throws by Jones made it an eight-point game. On FSU’s next possession, McKissic ripped the ball out of forward Malik Osborne’s hands near the top of the arc and was fouled on the resulting fast break. He made both free throws.

Fleming rebounded Jones’ missed three-point shot on the next possession and laid it in to expand the lead to 56-44.

That was basically the game. A couple of bad passes and some made shots by FSU (1-1) cut the lead to 10 with 5:51 to go, but the Gators simply never let up on defense or in the rebounding department.

“If you want to be one of the better teams in the SEC, you’d better be one of the better defenses in the SEC,” White said. “We’ve been at or near the top, and we’ve had certain years where we weren’t quite as good. I do think we can be better defensively this year. I think we showed that in spurts. We’re always going to hang our hats on defense and rebounding and control the things a little easier to control. Obviously, you want to complement that with the best offense you have.

“Offense will change during the course of the year based on matchups, rotations and what type of groove guys are in. But defense is something, since I’ve been here and really every staff I’ve been a part of, you want to be as good as you possibly can be. You’re either in the right spot or you’re not. You’re either playing as hard as you can or not. You’re either blocking out hard or not. This team has a chance to be very good defensively.”

Added Duruji: “We came with a lot of energy. This game was really personal. We just got it done today.

“The defense is what was working for us. We had a lot of stops. We were disciplined, and that led to easy offense. We had the momentum the whole way. We stayed together, played for each other and took the shots [that] we prepared for. That’s what worked.”

The game fittingly ended with Castleton yanking down a missed three-point shot in traffic on the offensive end of the floor and passing the ball out to McKissic, who dribbled it out.

“A plus with them is they have a lot older, experienced (team],” Hamilton said. “They did a great job of being who they are better than who we are. They out-Florida State’d Florida State. I thought they did the things to us that we’ve been accustomed to doing to other people, and you’ve got to give them credit for that.

“You could tell that this game meant an awful lot to them. Coach [White] really had them ready mentally and emotionally, and I thought that they played with a tremendous amount of togetherness. They were on point with everything they did. Even when we were making baskets, I thought they still had the determined look in their eye. I don’t want to use the term desperation, but they played with a lot more focus than we did for the entire game.”

While it was only the second game of the season, this win definitely felt extra special for the Gators and their fans. White had never beaten FSU, which contributed to him falling out of favor with a portion of the fan base.

He’s got that win now, and he got it in emphatic fashion. The Gators beat Florida State at their own game.

“They bring a certain type of energy that they bring every year, but I feel like we just played the way we play,” Castleton said. “This year, it’s a different team. We have a different mentality. We really didn’t care about what they were going to bring. It was about us and how hard we were going to play, how tough we were, how much heart we had, and we felt like we brought more of that than they did. That helped us get the win.”

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.