Florida basketball unraveled late in its first true road game of the season, falling 82-71 to Wake Forest in its SEC/ACC Challenge matchup at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston Salem, N.C.
The Florida Gators (4-3) suffered their second straight loss in their third straight game away from the O'Connell Center.
Florida played its second straight game without 7-foot-1 center Micah Handlogten, who sat out the game with an ankle injury. Freshman forward Thomas Haugh made his first career start in his place.
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The Gators led by as many nine in the second half, going up 45-36 on a short basket in the paint from freshman forward Alex Condon. But Wake Forest charged back, going on a 16-7 run to tie the score at 52 on a dunk from forward Andrew Carr with 10:33 remaining.
“After we got up by nine in the second half we had multiple opportunities to extend that thing into double figures," Florida basketball coach Todd Golden said. "I think one turnover, one good shot that we missed just allowed them to have a little hope and a little belief, as opposed to being able to close them out."
From there, the score remained tight, with a jumper by Florida guard Zyon Pullin in the paint tying the score at 66 with 4:03 left. But Wake Forest dominated in crunch time, outscoring UF 16-5 in the final four minutes to seize the game.
Florida, which came into the game the 17th-ranked team in the country in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency (per KenPom), shot 40 percent from the floor with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 11 of 15.
Here are three takeaways from the loss:
Some shaky execution down the stretch for UF basketball
Florida turned the ball over three times in the final 2:25, including two by sophomore guard Riley Kugel. One of Kugel's turnovers led to a fast-break layup by Kevin Miller which put Wake Forest up 71-66 with 2:07 to play.
There were rushed, forced shots within the offense in the final four minutes and a questionable technical foul call on center Tyrese Samuel that led to a four-point play which extended the Wake Forest lead to 80-69 with 50 seconds left.
Another big scoring night for Florida basketball sophomore guard Riley Kugel
Despite the turnovers late, Kugel kept Florida in the game until the final four minutes with some big shots, scoring 24 points by going 9 of 14 from the floor and 4 of 6 from 3-point range on the night before his 20th birthday.
With Florida trailing 57-54, Kugel scored eight of UF's next 10 points, including a 3-pointer that tied the score at 64 with 4:58 left.
In the first half, Kugel scored 12 points, including a transition dunk over Wake Forest forward Andrew Carr that will likely find its way on a SportsCenter highlight reel.
Kugel has averaged 24.5 points over his last two games and has made 8 of his last 12 3-point attempts.
UF basketball plays matador defense in the second half
Florida took a 36-32 lead into halftime by holding Wake Forest to 38.6 percent shooting from the floor in the first half. But the Deamon Deacons shot 61.5 percent in the second half, making 16 of 26 attempts.
The 6-foot-10 Carr burned the Gators both inside and outside, going 8 of 13 from the floor and 3 of 6 from 3-point range for 22 points. UF also was unable to keep dynamic guard Hunter Sallis from penetrating to the rim late as he scored 16 of his team-high 24 points in the second half.
"In the second half, they made a lot of 2s, a lot of tough 2s, and obviously they shot 20 free throws in the second half," Golden said. "We did a good job of defending the 3-point line – 6-for16, I’ll take that – got to limit them to a lower percentage from 2."
Some questionable whistles from the refs made Florida tentative at times on defense, but that's part of life of playing college basketball on the road. Wake Forest went to the free throw line 29 times in the game, compared to 19 free throw trips for the Gators.
"They shot 29 free throws, so that’s going to be an efficient way to score," Golden said. "We obviously have to do a better job of defending without fouling.”
This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Florida Gators basketball loses at Wake Forest in ACC/SEC Challenge