The Gators kept their scorching hot start to the season going on Monday night in Fort Myers. No. 23 Florida defeated California, 80-60. They’ll play Ohio State in the championship game of the Fort Myers Tipoff on Wednesday night.
The Gators dominated almost every phase of the game. They shot 52 percent from the field, including 42 percent (8-for-19) from beyond the arc. They limited California to 44 percent shooting, including 20 percent from deep. They made 18 of their 21 free throws (85 percent) and forced 18 turnovers that they converted into 19 points.
Center Colin Castleton led the way once again with 16 points, eight rebounds and three assists, including one where he led a fastbreak and found a cutting Anthony Duruji for a slam dunk.
“It felt good being able to just push the ball up the court,” Castleton said. “I felt like I was 6-foot for a second. So, I was able to push it up the court, and I saw Ruj. He runs like a track star. So, I only had to take like two or three dribbles, and I saw him sprinting toward the ball. I knew he was going to dunk it as soon as I passed it, so I was like, ‘All right, I got me an assist’ right away. It felt good. I felt like a guard for a couple of seconds, but I had to get back into my center mindset.”
Guard Tyree Appleby scored 15 points on 4-for-8 shooting from the field and 7-for-7 shooting from the free throw line. He also dished three assists and came away with a pair of steals.
Guard Myreon Jones used a 3-for-6 night from deep to score 13 points, while Phlandrous Fleming scored 11 points, the most in his brief UF career.
“[Fleming] looked good for sure,” Castleton said. “That’s what Phlan brings every day. He’s a confident player. He has a really unique skillset for his position and size. He just knows how to play basketball really well. So, it was good to see him get going because he had a little bit of issues with an injury lingering and then a little bit of the issue we had with the flu bug. It was good to see him get his confidence back.”
Forward CJ Felder scored a season-best eight points, including a pair of made threes, and grabbed three rebounds in 17 minutes.
“We’d like to see him more active, using his athleticism, attacking the basket,” UF coach Mike White said. “Being one of our more talented defenders and rebounders, we’d like to see him be high-level in those areas in time. He’s still adjusting to a new system, and he spent a lot of time in the offseason trying to develop his skill level, particularly shooting threes. He’s shooting it well, but he can’t hang his hat on that, of course. If he’s open, I don’t want him to overthink it; I want him to shoot it if it’s a good shot for our team.”
The Gators (4-0) didn’t get off to the greatest start, trailing 15-13 with 10 ½ minutes to go in the first half. They missed a bunch of open shots, and the Golden Bears (2-3) were able to beat their press to get a couple of easy baskets.
Then, as has been typical this season, UF took off on that big run. They outscored California 32-12 over the final 10:20 of the half. Their proficiency at the charity stripe played a large role in them busting the game open, as they made 14 of 15 free throws during this stretch.
“I feel like free throws are just something we should be really well at shooting,” Castleton said. “They’re free points. We’ve just got to keep putting the work in. I feel like I’m not shooting the ball well from the free throw line, but I’m going to get better at them and get my confidence back up. But, I think us as a team shooting the ball from the free throw line very well is important to win games.”
Three made three-pointers by Jones, plus one each from Felder and Fleming, also helped them stretch the lead out to 46-27 at the break.
“I thought our energy level just picked up,” White said. “I thought we were a little bit flat defensively in the first few minutes. Our first time playing away from home without our fans in Exactech Arena screaming for us, and so, it took a little while for us to adjust, I think, to a new environment. We did jump the ball as well. We trapped more in the backcourt there in the second half of the first half, those second 10 minutes. I thought it was pretty good for us, led by Anthony Duruji. I thought he was really good in press tonight.”
If there was one disappointing aspect of the way that the Gators played in this game, it was their second-half defense, which has been a recurring problem for them against outmanned opponents this season. Over the first 13 minutes of the second half, the Golden Bears shot 57 percent before the Gators stepped it up again late.
Fortunately, Florida was able to keep this game from becoming competitive thanks to 54 percent shooting of their own in the second half, which included 10 points from Castleton and eight from Appleby.
“Pretty good ball movement,” White said. “It obviously wasn’t perfect. A lot of stuff to clean up with setting and using screens and a couple decisions here and there that we’ve got to sharpen. But, the overall level of unselfishness we continue to talk about is very important for good offenses to have, and we shared it.
“Our assists number is not as high as you’d like to see it, but to score 80 against a Mark Fox-coached team, you must have done some good things offensively because they’re always so solid and disciplined and physical defensively, prepared. We did also get some extra possessions by creating some of those turnovers.”
The Gators weren’t perfect against California, but they took another step in the right direction.
“I feel like we’re getting more and more connected,” Castleton said. “We’re getting better. People don’t realize we just are all still meshing, and we came together very quickly. But, we’ve set a standard at a certain level, and we’re trying to play above that every night. Not just hit that goal, we’re trying to play above our standard every single night. If we keep getting better, we’re going to be a really good defensive team. I feel like we’re good with where we’re at, but we’ve got to keep working and just keep being hungry.”