Gators X’ed Out in PK85 Opener

Gators X'ed Out in PK85 Opener

PORTLAND, Ore. — The pace was furious most of the game, with both teams going on mini-runs that were answered by mini-runs. 

Then came one the Florida Gators had no answer for. Only questions. The first one being, “Why?”

UF and Xavier were tied eight minutes into the second half Thursday in their Phil Knight Legacy matchup. The Musketeers’ last offensive trip ended with a two-handed slam by forward Zach Freemantle and they came into the half court looking to take the lead. That was when Florida forward Alex Fudge, matched against XU 7-footer Jack Nunge at the top of the key, stripped the Musketeers’ big man, gathered the ball and began racing toward the basket for what surely was going to be a rim-rattling, high-flying flush like the one Fudge threw down at Florida State last week in SportsCenter Top 10 fashion. 

Only this time, Fudge threw the ball off the back of the rim. Freemantle grabbed the rebound and shoveled it to guard Adam Kunkel, who found backcourt mate Colby Jones down the court for a wide-open transition 3-pointer and the lead. 

No big deal. Shake it off, right? Except that two possessions later, UF freshman guard Riley Kugel, maybe the best and bounciest athlete on the team, attacked the basket for a virtually uncontested layup. He missed it. Kugel grabbed the rebound and tried to put it back. Missed it. This time, Jones grabbed board, found Kunkel, who found backup guard Claude Desmond for a wide-open transition 3-pointer. Just like that. Bang-bang. An eight-point flurry built around a pair of point-blank Florida misses.   

“Against a really good team like Xavier, you can’t have those things happen,” Gators coach Todd Golden said. 

No, you can’t, especially on an afternoon when that really good Musketeers team was shooting lights-out, which was the case throughout Xavier’s 90-83 victory at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Guards Souley Boum and Jones each poured in 22 points — together hitting 15 of 26 shots, five of 10 from 3 and nine of 10 free throws — to lead all five XU starters into double-figure scoring, as the Musketeers (4-1) fired at 55.9 percent from the floor and rained in 10 of their 20 attempts from the 3-point line. Nunge had 16 points and nine rebounds, Freemantle added 14 on 5-for-5 shooting to go with 11 rebounds. Kunkel chipped in 11 points and five assists. 

Musketeers guard Souley Boum (0) drives for two of his 22 points. 

[Xavier photo]

The Gators (3-2), who got a game-high 23 points from 6-foot Virginia Military Institute transfer guard Trey Bonham in his first start with the program, managed just 44.3 percent overall and only 9-for-27 from deep (33.3 percent). Guard Will Richard, the transfer from Belmont, had 18 points, six rebounds and three steals. Fifth-year forward Colin Castleton, whose 25.3-point average ranked third in the nation coming in, was held to just 11 points, but battled for 10 rebounds, four assists and four blocks. 

The loss dumped UF into the loser’s bracket and a Friday date against Oregon State (3-2), which fell 54-51 to No. 8-ranked Duke in their tournament opener.

“We just didn’t get enough stops during the game,” Bonham said after making nine of 19 attempts and two of seven 3-balls. “Offensively, I thought we took care of the ball, but they’re a good team. We didn’t get the shots we wanted and they were crashing hard on Colin.” 

Castleton made only five of his 14 shots and went one or two from the free-throw line after averaging 8.5 free throws through the team’s first four games. Xavier was only called for 11 fouls (to 20 against UF), as the Gators failed to get to the bonus in either half and shot just eight free throws (to 20 for XU) for the game. 

“Colin didn’t play his best game. They did a really good job defending in the post, physically,” Golden said. “Between Freemantle and Nunge, two of the most physical bigs we’ll play all year, they combined for two fouls. I’ve got to go back and watch how they did such a good job of not fouling around the rim, especially against such a good player like Colin, who’s one of the best foul-drawers in the country. He wasn’t very comfortable down there and I thought there were times where there might have been some contact where he didn’t get the opportunity to go to the line. But credit to them. They were the more physical team. 

And the better shooting one, by far. 

Case in point: The trio of Jones, Freemantle and Claude collectively went six of seven from the 3-point line, yet they were 0-for-7 combined in the Musketeers’ first four games. It was that kind of day. 

Nonetheless, the Gators were holding up just fine, even after a gruesome end to the first half when a four-point lead was flipped to a four-point deficit by XU’s run of eight straight over the final 1:04.

UF right away went down six after halftime, but battled back behind Bonham and Richard and led 56-52 after a 3-pointer by Kugel (career-high 12 points over 20 minutes) with 14:24 to go. 

That’s when Xavier took off on a 12-2 run, with the last six points coming on those consecutive 3s following failed Florida bunnies at the basket. 

Gators scoring leader Colin Castleton wasn’t given much room to work against 7-footer Jack Nunge (24) and a physical Xavier front court. 

“We had moments where we let them off the hook,” Golden said. “We missed our dunks and layups and they went to the other end and made us pay. In a game like this, that’s kind of a differentiator.” 

A 9-2 XU run of all 3s pushed the Musketeers to their biggest lead, 11, with eight minutes to go. Three times UF fought back and made it a one-possession game, the final time when Castleton’s layup with 3:11 cut the margin to 82-79. 

At Xavier’s end, Florida got the stop it needed, forcing a late-clock 3-pointer that bounced away. The Musketeers, though, got the offensive rebound and Kunkel scored on a driving layup to capitalize on the second-chance opportunity with 2:22 to go. XU closed the game from there, leaving UF’s players to ponder another outing lowlighted by inexplicable (and maddening) misses at the rim. 

“Other than some interesting plays like that, I thought it was a pretty evenly played game,” Golden said. “They had their moments, we had ours.”

A couple were worth forgetting.

“We know we’re good enough to make those plays,” Bonham said. “You feel frustrated, [but] you just have to know that next time you’re going to make that bucket. It’s a mental thing. Just have to get over that hump.”


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