Florida
Florida coach Todd Golden gestures during the first half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Alan Youngblood)

Gators Men’s Hoops Beat East Carolina

After his performance at the RP Funding Center, Walter Clayton Jr. might want to change his degree to Culinary because he was cooking.

On Thursday night, the Gator men’s basketball team beat East Carolina 70-65 in Lakeland. This victory puts Florida on a three-game winning streak. This was the first time the two teams have ever met on the basketball floor.

Clayton Carries Gators

After becoming a father on Monday, it would not be rash to assume that Clayton’s mindset heading into the game against the Pirates would not be entirely on basketball. However, the former Iona guard appeared locked in from the get-go, and as Florida coach Todd Golden would say after the game “obviously his play tonight exhibited that.”

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In the first half, Clayton erupted for 20 points on 8 of-13 shooting; it’s the third time this season that the Lake Wales, Florida native has been able to score 20 or more. Additionally, the 6’3” junior earned a season-high in minutes with 35. To join him in his efforts were Alex Condon, Will Richard, Micah Handlogten and Tyrese Samuel with a combined 17 first-half points.

Some might say that Clayton’s red-hot start might be due to his previous success in the former Lakeland Magic home. While attending Bartow High, he helped his high school basketball team win two Class 6A state championships at the RP Funding Center. Now as a student-athlete in college, the guard’s homecoming game could not have felt any better.

“It felt great,” Clayton said. “Obviously, I have never lost here, so that is always a good feeling. Add it to the win column in this building.”

But as the buzzer sounded, the father’s focus shifted directly toward his newborn. He said right after the conclusion of the post-game press conference that he would go see his girlfriend and his daughter, Leilani Leigh Clayton. However, before departing, he made sure to let reporters know how his week went.

“My back hurt a litle bit,” Clayton said. “You know sleeping on that hosptial little couch they had in there for me. But you know it has just been good. Everything went well. Healthy baby, my girl healthy.”

Down To The Wire

Despite Clayton’s heroic display of scoring, East Carolina was only down seven points at the break.

Heading into the second half, it appeared that ECU’s defensive game plan had changed. Knowing that they were getting out-rebounded (19-14) in the opening period, the Pirates made the decision to make Florida earn their points from the line. Compared to their seven fouls on the Orange & Blue in the first half, East Carolina fouled the Gators twice as much (14) in the second.

This strategy almost worked as Florida would shoot 54.5% from the charity stripe (12-22) a problem that has plagued the team for almost the entire season so far.  This lackluster free throw efficiency allowed ECU to inch their way back into the game. And a 1 for 10 performance from beyond the arc in the second half did not help.

After several non-scoring runs by Florida, East Carolina would go a 6-0 of their own to bring it within two.

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But when the momentum seemed to be sailing the Pirates’ way, Richard and Zyon Pullin kept the Gator’s boat afloat. Pullin would take over in the second half by driving to the basket to earn 11 points. On the other hand, Richard would come up clutch late in the half with a three-ball that would put a pause in ECU’s run.

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However, clumsy play by Florida in the second would lead to 11 turnover and the Pirates scored 10 points off of those mistakes. Clayton went from hot as a furnace to cold as a fridge by only scoring two points in the second half.  But with less than 30 seconds remaining and only up by two, Samuel made a grown man play. The 6’10” forward pulled down a rebound off of a missed three attempt and slammed it home. This would give Florida a four-point lead.

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With Samuel’s dunk and a late Condon free throw, the Gators would walk away from Lakeland with the win. Although this victory was a rollercoaster of a ride, Golden felt optimistic about how his team handled adversity.

“In the last four minutes of the game, we did a really good job of gathering ourselves and executing,” Golden said. “I think as our program continues to mature, you know, these are the type of wins that build character, they build trust, they build belief and I am proud of our guys to find a way to win tonight.”

Up Next

Florida’s next game will be on December 17 against Michigan in the Jumpman Invitational.

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