Gators bounce back with resounding win against Arkansas

GAINESVILLE — The Florida men’s basketball team and star Riley Kugel followed their most embarrassing performance with an emphatic response to avoid an inescapable hole in SEC play.

The Gators’ 90-68 win Saturday against Arkansas was the bounce-back performance coach Todd Golden’s squad (11-5, 1-2 SEC) and Kugel needed after a 103-85 lopsided loss Wednesday at Ole Miss.

The Rebels were the first opponent to crack the century mark against UF since Tennessee in 2008, and Kugel failed to score during just four minutes after getting crossways with his coach.

But against Arkansas, to 6-foot-5 Orlando native led five Gators in double figures with 20 points — Kugel’s highest point total since he dropped 25 during a Nov. 29 loss at Wake Forest and the season’s fourth 20-point outing.

“We’re not the best versions of ourselves unless Riley Kugel is playing well,” Golden said. “When he plays like that, obviously our ceiling gets a lot higher.”

Many of Kugel’s points were courtesy of highlight-reel plays during Florida runs as the Gators avoided an 0-3 start to conference play in front of a sold-out crowd of 10,449 at the O’Connell Center.

Kugel closed the first half with an end-to-end layup and baseline dunk, one of his four slams in the game. .

“He does something different every day. I’m like, ‘Who are you?'” shooting guard Will Richard said. “We know what he can do. I’m just proud of him getting back on track.”

A banked 3-pointer for his final points culminated Kugel’s evening and even elicited a smile from the usually stoic 20-year-old.

“That was the basketball gods,” he said.

As the final minutes wound down, Golden and Kugel shared a hug. Two days earlier, they shared a heart-to-heart after the season’s low point for both.

Neither shared many details of their conversation.

“We were just talking,” Kugel said. “We’re on the same page now.”

Arkansas (9-7, 0-3) never had a chance once Kugel, the Gators and the O’Dome crowd got going.

But the Razorbacks had reason to be flat. Winter storms in Fayetteville forced coach Eric Musselman’s team to hunker down in Gainesville following Wednesday’s loss at Georgia and prepare for Saturday’s game.

Now in his fifth season at Arkansas, Musselman coached the Hogs to at least 22 wins and the past three NCAA Tournaments. But a program with appearances in two Elite Eights (2021, 2022) and the 2023 Sweet 16 is searching for answers.

“We’ve been a team that’s been super tough-minded, we’ve been a team that competes, we’ve been a team that battles, we’ve been a team that has grit,” the 59-year-old said. “We have not done that this year at all.”

The Gators seized control early on with an 11-0 run, culminating with a 3-pointer by 6-foot-10 Tyrese Samuel for a 16-7 lead. UF extended the advantage to 29-10 before the Razorbacks responded, though they never could get closer than 9 points the rest of the way.

Samuel went on to finish with 17 points and 11 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season and confidence boost akin to Kugel’s. The Seton Hall transfer scored just 3 points during an 87-85 season-opening loss Jan. 6 to Kentucky and committed 5 turnovers at Ole Miss.

“I needed that,” Samuel said. “My coaches this week asked me if everything was OK. ‘Are you good?’ They’re willing to do anything to help me get back to how I was playing.

“I’m going to continue with this trend and continue to win games for Florida.”

The Gators look to maintain their momentum at Tennessee, one of the SEC’s top teams.

“This is going to be a bear on Tuesday night,” Golden said. “We got to go on the road, play with poise, not let the environment take our team over and take care of the ball and just do the winning things that we did today.”

In addition to Kugel and Samuel’s confidence-building outings, point guard Zyon Pullin finished with 15 points and 8 assists with just 1 turnover while 6-foot-11 Aussie freshman Alex Condon registered 9 rebounds and 3 blocked shots as the Gators built a 48-31 advantage on the backboard.

UF ended with more than 70 points in the season’s first 16 games for the first time in 47 years. The Gators’ complemented the effort with strong defense, holding the Razorbacks to 37.7 % shooting.

“This is our most complete performance of the year,” Golden said.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at