Florida upends No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 behind Colin Castleton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Colin Castleton had 20 points and nine rebounds, Kyle Lofton added 14 points and Florida used a 13-0 run late in the second half to upend No. 2 Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night.

The Volunteers, playing with their highest ranking in four years, lost for the first time in five games. They had won nine of 10.

Tennessee (18-4, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) looked like it had taken control midway through the second half. They outscored Florida by 10 points in the early going to take a six-point lead.

But the Gators (13-9, 6-3) stormed back behind Castleton, who scored 11 of 14 points as Florida rallied. The senior had a dunk, two free throws, a three-point play, a layup and a short jumper – essentially putting the team on his back down the stretch.

Myreon Jones and Will Richard chipped in nine points apiece for the Gators.

Zakai Ziegler led the Vols with 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Olivier Nkamhoua added 11 points and nine rebounds for the vistors, who also got 11 points and eight boards from Vescovi Santiago.

Florida led 27-21 at halftime, just the fifth time the Volunteers has trailed at the break this season. Tennessee rallied to win three of the previous four.

The Gators were red hot to start, making six of their first eight shots – including all three from 3-point range – while building a 17-4 advantage. But they quickly cooled against the nation’s best defense, missing nine of their next 11 as Tennessee made cut it to 22-21.

The Vols had it going coming out of the locker room, with Ziegler getting into the paint and making things happen. But it was short-lived – thanks mostly to Castleton.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Tennessee surely will drop a few spots in next week’s AP Top 25 college basketball poll.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers gave up 10 points in the opening four minutes of the games, a rare sluggish start for the nation’s best defense. Tennessee had held four of its first eight SEC opponents scoreless at the first media timeout, roughly the first four minutes of games. It was a sign of things to come.

Florida: The Gators have been resilient much of the season, and this was arguably the most impressive comeback of the season for coach Todd Golden’s team. The Gators squandered a 13-point lead early and a six-point advantage in the second half. But they rallied when it mattered.

IN THE HOUSE

Football coach Billy Napier watched the game from a few rows behind Florida’s bench alongside his two sons and receiver Ricky Pearsall. Former Florida tennis star Ben Shelton, the NCAA singles champion in 2022, also was in attendance. So was former Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson.

UP NEXT

Tennessee hosts No. 25 Auburn and former coach Bruce Pearl on Saturday.

Florida plays at Kentucky on Saturday. The Gators have lost seven of eight in the series.

Florida’s CJ Felder leaves team for personal reasons

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida forward CJ Felder has left the team for personal reasons, although coach Todd Golden left the door open for his return later this season.

Felder, who is averaging 2.5 points and 3.1 rebounds this season, sat out of Florida’s last game at LSU and played just two minutes against Georgia last week. He won’t be on the bench when the Gators host 20th-ranked Missouri.

“CJ Felder’s going to take a little time away from the team for personal reasons,” Golden said. “Definitely nothing disciplinary, still a part of our family, love him. He’s just going through a little bit of a time right now and leaving the door open for him to join the team again this season whenever he’s ready.”

The 6-foot-7 Felder transferred to Florida in 2021 after two seasons at Boston College. He’s served mostly as a role player for the Gators (9-7, 2-2 Southeastern Conference), who have tweaked their rotation several times under new coach Golden.

Late steal preserves No. 20 Auburn’s 61-58 win over Florida

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AUBURN, Ala. – Chris Moore and Auburn sealed the win with one final defensive play, a fitting finish for a team whose biggest strength has been in getting stops.

Moore got a steal in the closing seconds and Wendell Green Jr. made a layup at the buzzer to cap No. 20 Auburn’s 61-58 victory over Florida on Wednesday night in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

“That’s our team,” Green said. “We’ve got to win defensively. Offense isn’t always going to be there.”

It wasn’t always there for the Tigers (11-2) against the Gators (7-6) either. But they stayed true to form defensively after coming in allowing just 61.2 points a game.

Moore stole the ball from Gators star Colin Castleton, who was attempting to get away a potential game-winner before Jaylin Williams got in his way in the paint. He passed to Green, who raced for the uncontested final basket.

“Jaylin Williams kind of takes that charge, makes the play and Castleton gets off balance and then it’s a 50-50 ball and Chris comes up with it and we score,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said.

Johni Broome’s layup gave Auburn a 59-58 lead with 1:16 left and Myreon Jones’s missed 3-point attempt went out of bounds for the Gators.

But Alex Fudge picked off a pass from Williams and Florida called time out with 18 seconds remaining. Castleton couldn’t get off a shot.

“We wanted to put the ball in his hands to make a play and see if he could get to the rim and draw a foul,” Florida coach Todd Golden said. “It just didn’t go in our favor.”

Green scored 11 of his 14 points in the second half. Broome had 14 points, 11 rebounds and four assists while Williams scored 13.

Kowacie Reeves led Florida with 15 points and Jones scored 10. Castleton finished 1-of-6 shooting for six points, 10 below his season average. He did have eight rebounds and four assists.

“I thought Colin did a really good job just playing within himself,” Golden said. “Obviously they’re loading up on him. Everything they did defensively was to take him away.”

Broome concurred. “He’s a good player but the main goal of the gameplan was to stop him,” he said.

Green scored his first 10 points in a 1:44 span starting with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to end the first half. He was fouled twice on early 3-point attempts coming out of the locker room, making 5 of 6 free throws.

Florida scored eight straight points late in the first half and led 26-23. Auburn went 5:45 without a field goal before Green’s 3-pointer at the buzzer for his only points of the half.

Auburn then made five of its last seven shots in a game that was a defensive standoff much of the way.

“We’re going to have to be a team that just has to guard people, because unfortunately offense has been difficult all year,” Pearl said.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: Nearly pulled off the big upset for first-year coach Golden. Castleton had a rare off night, attempting only one field goal in the first half and making his only basket in the opening minute of the second.

Auburn: The Tigers’ 26th consecutive home win tied Kentucky for the fourth longest active streak in the nation. Finished the first half making 2 of its last 13 shots, hitting just 8 of 28 attempts (28.6). Outrebounded the Gators 40-28, including 17 offensive boards.

GOLDEN & PEARL

Golden worked on Pearl’s staff at Auburn from 2014-16, including one season as director of basketball operations before getting promoted to assistant coach.

“This one is a little more emotional for me, because Bruce has just been such a big part of my career as a player and a coach,” Golden said.

It was also emotional for Pearl. “I love Todd like a son,” he said.

UP NEXT

Florida hosts Texas A&M on Jan. 4

Auburn visits Georgia on Jan. 4

Florida lands ‘proven winner’ with St. Bonnies guard Lofton

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida officially signed graduate transfer and St. Bonaventure guard Kyle Lofton on Friday, a potentially huge addition for new coach Todd Golden.

Lofton earned All-Atlantic 10 honors each of the past three seasons while totaling 1,613 points and 604 assists. The 6-foot-3 point guard started 116 games during his four years with the Bonnies, averaging a nation-leading 38.1 minutes a game and shooting 42.1% from the field and 82% from the free-throw line.

“He’s a proven winner and leader,” Golden said. “He makes others around him better and cares only about one thing: winning.”

Lofton should be an upgrade from turnover-prove point guard Tyree Appleby, who transferred for the second time and landed at Wake Forest.

Lofton helped St. Bonaventure reach the NCAA Tournament in 2021, leading the Bonnies with 23 points in the Atlantic 10 championship game.

He joins VMI point guard Trey Bonham, Belmont shooting guard Will Richard and LSU forward Alex Fudge as transfers Golden has lured to Gainesville. They are expected to be the core of the program, along with big man Colin Castleton and guard Kowacie Reeves.

The Gators now have 11 of 13 scholarships filled for next season, with Golden still looking to the transfer portal in hopes of finding frontcourt help and another shooter.

Former LSU forward Fudge transfers to Florida, joins Golden

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Former LSU forward Alex Fudge transferred to Florida, becoming another key building block for new coach Todd Golden.

Fudge, a Jacksonville, Florida, native, averaged 3.3 points and 3.2 rebounds as a freshman with the Tigers last season. The 6-foot-8 Fudge has a 7-foot wingspan and was a four-star prospect. He averaged 17.9 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.7 blocked shots as a senior at Lee High.

“Alex is just scratching the surface in terms of his potential,” Golden said in a statement. “He’s already proven to be an impactful defender that makes winning plays and can guard multiple positions. Offensively, we believe he will make a big jump for us getting out in transition more and playing in the middle of the floor in the half court. We can’t wait to see his growth from his freshman to his sophomore season.”

Fudge joins a roster that includes big man Colin Castleton and rising sophomore Kowacie Reeves. Both players considered leaving Florida after former coach Mike White took the Georgia job, but Golden convinced Castleton and Reeves to remain in Gainesville.

Florida big man, leading scorer Castleton back for 5th year

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida big man Colin Castleton is returning for a fifth season, a huge boost for new coach Todd Golden.

Castleton, a 6-foot-11 forward from nearby DeLand who transferred to Florida after two years at Michigan, led the Gators in scoring and rebounding last season. He averaged 16.2 points and 9.0 rebounds despite playing nearly the final dozen games with a torn labrum that will require surgery. He also finished second in the Southeastern Conference with 62 blocked shots.

Castleton recorded 10 double-doubles and was eighth in the league in scoring, third in rebounding and fourth in field-goal percentage.

“The past couple weeks have helped me reflect on the season, as well as give me time to decide what’s next for my future,” Castleton said in a social media post Monday. “Thank you to my family and everyone who has helped me make this decision. Everyone’s process is different, and I’m adding another chapter to mine.

“Gator Nation, I’m back!”

Castleton missed six games after injuring his left shoulder during practice in mid-January but returned in hopes of helping the Gators make the NCAA Tournament; they fell short and ended up in the NIT. Castleton is expected to have surgery in the coming weeks to repair the damage and should be ready in time for summer workouts.

His return gives the Gators seven scholarship players back from the 2021-22 roster, including Kowacie Reeves, Myreon Jones, CJ Felder, Jason Jitoboh, Niels Lane and Eli Kennedy.

Three others opted to move on. Forward Anthony Duruji entered the NBA draft. Point guard Tyree Appleby, the team’s second-leading scorer, and forward Tuongthach Gatkek entered the transfer portal. Others still could join them there.

Golden and his staff hosted several potential transfers over the past week, expecting some of them to fill roster holes. Florida also has two incoming freshman signees: forward Jalen Reed and guard Denzel Aberdeen.