The Gators came to play against for the third-consecutive matchup with a conference opponent.
Falling short in their first three games of league play, the Florida Gators had begun to spiral out of control. Starting hot with a 6-0 record in November to open the season, Mike White and Co. looked like they had finally found the team that had what it took to sustain itself when hitting adversity.
However, with the temperatures beginning to drop in December, Florida started to cool off. They hit rock bottom in their first three contests against the SEC opponents.
The season has once again taken a turn, this time for the better, as the group has won three straight to move themselves back to even against Southeastern Conference teams, including South Carolina a week ago, Mississippi State on Wednesday and Vanderbilt Saturday.
Here are three quick takeaways from the Gators 61-42 victory over Vanderbilt in Gainesville.
The Gators second-half defense was impeccable
Per usual, the Gators shined defensively in victory.
Limiting the Commodores to just 14 total points in the second period — cutting their first-half total of 28 in half — the Gators were able to separate themselves with a quick 12-0 run to start the final 20 minutes of play.
Despite failing to turnover the 'Dores often with Jerry Stackhouse's team doing so just 12 times, the constant suffocation forced ill-advised shots late in the shot clock by players who aren't the primary scoring option.
Vanderbilt shot an abysmal 28.9% from the field as a team, failing to eclipse their season-average mark of 41%. From deep, they made less than one of five attempts and couldn't capitalize on their free throw opportunities as well, shooting at just 52% on the day (12-for-23).
This is a testament to the suffocating pressure Florida applied to the Commodores unit in the full-court and half-court throughout the game.
The most significant contribution came from Gators grad graduate transfer guard Brandon McKissic, who helped halt Vanderbilt star and the SEC's leading scorer in Scottie Pippen Jr. — averaging 18.8 points per game on the year — to just six points on 1-for-10 shooting the basketball.
The defense was without a doubt the best aspect of Florida's play Saturday and moved the squad a step further toward reestablishing their identity as they hear up for another difficult stretch of games.
Jason Jitoboh showed he's capable of filling in for Colin Castleton
When Colin Castleton was announced as a no-go for Florida's bout with Mississippi State on Wednesday, the lingering concern was their presence inside, specifically on the boards, going forward. White consistently worked through rotation against MSST, a committee approach to replenish the footprint Castleton leaves in the middle.
Looking to backup big man Jason Jitoboh, as well as others like CJ Felder and Tuongthach Gatkek, the Gators were able to combat the Bulldogs' presence on the boards. However, question marks remained for its sustainability as Jitoboh would commit three fouls in five minutes of play.
He started to bury the doubts Saturday.
Grabbing 10 rebounds — five on offense and five on defense — and posting eight points on 3-for-4 shooting and 2-for-3 from the charity stripe, Jitoboh played a vital role in the Gators winning the battle of the board and providing extra possessions.
The 6-foot-11, 305-pounder recorded the best game of his Florida career, recording highs in minutes (27) and rebounds.
If Jitoboh can continue proving to be a complementary scoring option while providing near double-digit rebound performances as they begin to face taller and longer teams, Florida will be in a prime position to make a push for the postseason.
The offense runs through no individual. Everybody eats.
With Castleton on the sideline, there is currently no one superstar in the Gators scoring attack. There's no go-to piece to break up the monotony of scoring droughts that have become a staple of Florida basketball in recent years. No one to operate the offense through that can supply consistent production as a scorer and occasional facilitator.
Instead, Anthony Duruji, Tyree Appleby, Kowacie Reeves Jr. and Phlandorus Fleming Jr. are being called to pick up the slack in their own way. Against Mississippi State, they were able to do so well, as all four posted double-digits.
Saturday was a different story.
Having just Appleby score double-digit points, UF would see nine of the 11 players that saw minutes — or just a minute in the case of walk-on sophomore Alex Klatsky — record points.
The balanced scoring attack proved efficient as the Gators were able to pull away from the Commodores in the second half, although there was a lot left to be desired from a volume and percentage standpoint.
It was a promising sign that the Gators can win when they're unable to find a sustainable rhythm offensively, but their recipe for success against Vandy will not be what aids them to triumph over the likes of Tennessee and Oklahoma State in two of their next three games.
To do that, they need everyone to eat — and eat well.
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