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Todd Golden’s Gators push to build on upset win at Kentucky

GAINESVILLE — Florida coach Todd Golden’s Gators are ready to make a serious move — into the Top 25 and firmly into the NCAA Tournament conversation.

UF’s overtime win Wednesday at Kentucky was a big step toward a return to the national rankings and relevancy, along with program’s first trip to the Big Dance since 2021.

Whether Golden’s signature win is a sign of things to come hinges on his team’s ability to build on Florida’s first road win since 2003 against a top-10 foe when the Gators (15-6, 5-3 SEC) visit Texas A&M (12-8, 3-4). Tip-off is 4 p.m. Saturday on ESPN2.

“It was a big game for us,” Golden said Friday. “But if we feel like we’ve arrived or we feel like we can just walk into A&M and play, it ain’t gonna happen. We’re going to get blasted.”

The Aggies are a tough out but also have been hit-or-miss.

Coach Buzz Williams’ team has four Quadrant 1 wins, according to the NCAA’s Net Rankings, beating No. 10 Iowa State, No. 25 Kentucky and No. 39 SMU, along with a road win at No. 70 Ohio State. Quad 1 includes home games against top-30 teams, neutral games against top-50 teams and road games against the top-75.

Florida’s comeback at No. 10 Kentucky was the Gators’ first Q1 win in seven tries, including close calls against Virginia in Charlotte and at Baylor and lost opportunities at Wake Forest and vs. Kentucky in Gainesville.

“Not trying to downplay it, but whether it was this game, or whether it was Auburn next week [Feb. 10] or A&M on Saturday — just getting over the hump was important to us,” Golden said. “It just happened to be Kentucky. And obviously, there’s a little more fanfare and a little more recognition about that game because of who they are, what they are ranked.”

The Gators appeared on track for more disappointment before erasing a four-point deficit during the final minute, capped by a 3-pointer by Iona transfer Walter Clayton Jr. with three seconds remaining. UF seized control in overtime with Clayton’s 7th 3 proving the go-ahead basket with 1:42 to go.

A junior from Lake Wales, Clayton had been sporadic from long range but began to find his stroke with 4 3s during an 102-98 overtime win Jan. 27 against Georgia. Given the green light at Kentucky, Clayton was clutch.

“Everybody just telling me, ‘Just keep shooting the ball,’ ” he said. “Every time I got a good look, just let it go.”

Clayton, who finished with 23 points, and point guard Zyon Pullin (21 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists) kept pace with the high-scoring Wildcats while 6-foot-10 Tyrese Samuel (22 points, 13 boards) battled inside. The trio anchors a solid seven-man rotation also including explosive sophomore Riley Kugel and sharpshooting junior Will Richard along with 7-foot-1 sophomore Micah Handlogten and 6-foot-11 freshman Alex Condon Jr.

Pullin’s steady, savvy play at the point has helped solidify a squad with six of nine newcomers playing key roles. The 6-foot-4, 206-pound UC Riverside transfer has developed a feel for his teammates and the ability take charge when necessary.

“He’s a stud,” Golden said. “He’s old, won a lot of games, came from a system and a program that values a lot of the same things that we do. So I don’t think there was as much of a transition period for him.”

The Gators, winners of four straight, appear to be ahead of schedule entering February but could squander momentum with a loss at A&M.

The Aggies’ physicality and presence of preseason SEC Player of the Year Wade Taylor IV has Golden’s attention.

A&M shoots just 39.04% from the field and 26.68% from 3-point range, both SEC lows, but leads the nation with an average of 18.65 offense rebounds. The Gators, however, are next with 16.29.

“That’s going to be quite the scene on Saturday,” Golden said. “They just have a very physical mentality.”

The 6-foot, 175-pound Taylor averages 20 points and 3.8 assists, but his value goes beyond numbers.

“Does a great job getting downhill going right and getting fouled — and can make tough shots,” Golden said. “Kind of the heartbeat of their team. He can be 0 for 8 and he has the ball in the last minute of the game and he thinks he’s going in.

“H’s gonna be a hard guy to stop,”

After beating Kentucky, the Gators don’t want to stop themselves following what could be a program-changing win.

“You got to be confident coming off that,” Golden said. “You just can’t allow yourself to be arrogant and not remember what you did prior to the Kentucky game to put yourself in that position. We have to have the same preparation, the same mentality going in this game against A&M.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com