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Florida chasing further growth in NIT opener vs. UCF

Feb 28, 2023; Athens, Georgia, USA; Florida Gators guard Riley Kugel (24) dribbles past Georgia Bulldogs guard Jusaun Holt (4) during the first half at Stegeman Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Florida will use its spot in the NIT to continue developing its younger players when it hosts state-rival UCF in a first-round home game Wednesday night at Gainesville, Fla.

The Gators (16-16) earned an NIT bid for the second straight year and a seventh straight postseason trip overall, dating back to the 2015-16 season.

Under first year head coach Todd Golden, the Gators had to regroup after losing leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker Colin Castleton to a season-ending, broken hand on Feb. 15.

Without Castleton, Florida posted back-to-back wins over Georgia and LSU to close the regular season before falling 69-68 in overtime to Mississippi State in the SEC tournament.

“The fact that we were able to rally and have a really good last week of the regular season, and then compete really well against Mississippi State, in a way this is a really good benchmark for us to hit, under our circumstances,” Golden said.

In Castleton’s absence, Florida has been led offensively by freshman guard Riley Kugel, who has scored in double figures in nine straight games and is averaging 17.8 points during that stretch. The last Florida freshman to score in double figures in more than nine games was Bradley Beal, who reached double figures in 10 straight games during the 2011-12 season.

Florida is headed to the NIT for the 12th time in school history. The Gators have reached the NIT semifinals three times (1986, 1992 and 2008).

UCF (18-14) is coming off an 81-76 loss to Memphis in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament. The Golden Knights have been led by All-AAC freshman forward Taylor Hendricks, who led all conference first-year players in scoring (15.3 points), rebounding (6.9) and blocks (1.8).

The Golden Knights are making their third NIT appearance in school history and second under head coach Johnny Dawkins, who is wary of the problems the Gators can present.

“A good basketball team,” Dawkins said. “Some talent, some really good perimeter players. They can score the basketball. They mix their defenses up pretty well. They press some, they fall back in man. They do a good job. It’s going to be a tough challenge and we’re looking forward to it.”

Florida is 10-1 all-time against UCF. In the last meeting, the Gators beat the Golden Knights 79-66 in Gainesville on Nov. 23, 2012.

–Field Level Media

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