The Florida Gators go into a week-long holiday break with back-to-back wins to build from after a tough stretch over the last few weeks.
Florida still did not look its best in its home matchup with the Incarnate Word Cardinals on Friday night, but did enough to come out with a victory.
Just six total points were scored between the two teams in the first four and a half minutes of play. The Cardinals proceeded to take an early 8-6 lead and stayed within striking distance for most of the half.
The Gators looked to be somewhat pulling away, with a 10-point lead around the three-minute mark. That was until Incarnate Word went on an 11-4 run to close the half, including a last second, unbalanced three-pointer from about 30 feet out to cut Florida’s lead to 37-34.
After a first half that mirrored the same ugly play the Gators have had in recent games, the obvious halftime speech expectations would be for Mike White to yell his players’ ears off and tell them to get it in gear, but that wasn’t his strategy this time.
He said with the lack of offensive confidence this team has had lately, he didn’t feel getting in their faces and raising his voice was the right button to push.
Instead, he handled it calmly, and according to Jalen Hudson, it was effective.
“He actually didn’t scream at us at all,” Hudson said. “It was actually more disappointing that way. He was just so frustrated. He just got really serious, like, ‘This is seriously how we’re playing right now. Is this how y’all want to go out to break for Christmas?’ I guess everybody felt it.”
The Cardinals opened up the second half with a three-point play to tie it up. From that point, the Gators went on a 14-2 run to take a 12-point lead. The run was led by four three-pointers from Hudson, Egor Koulechov and Mike Okauru in less than three minutes.
Incarnate Word never brought it closer than five points with 12:50 remaining. A 17-4 run by Florida extended the lead to as many as 21 points as the Gators went on to win 75-60.
“We had to bring a lot of energy in the second half,” Hudson said. “I don’t know if you could tell, but I could just feel it that everybody was super locked in and wanted to bring energy, because Coach was so disappointed in our energy.”
Three players finished in double figures, as Chris Chiozza led the team for the second game in a row with 16 points and Hudson (13) and Koulechov (12) followed behind him.
Overall, the field goal shooting was still underwhelming at 38 percent (25-for-64) and 25 percent (9-for-36) from long range.
“I thought we were too unselfish tonight,” White said. “I said it at every timeout over and over. I said it at halftime. I thought we passed up decent looks because we weren’t making shots a lot of times. We passed up decent ones to get worse looks or to turn the ball over. We never found a great offensive rhythm.”
Hudson’s career high six assists were a key in getting the ball moving around a little bit again.
Florida finished with 13 assists, which were the most since the Gonzaga game.
Chiozza was also a key in that department with four assists and no turnovers. It was his second consecutive game without a turnover, and while the competition wasn’t necessarily the best, that is difficult to do against any team.
“You can tell he’s not worried about going home at all,” Hudson said of Chiozza. “He’s been playing really well as of late. He’s doing everything with a lot of energy. Actually, zero turnovers two games in a row, that’s tough. He’s probably handling the ball like 80 percent of the time, so that’s super tough. He’s on a roll right now.”
Defensively, the Gators allowed the Cardinals to shoot 48 percent (22-for-46) from the field and 42 percent (5-for-12) from three, but were able to come up with stops when needed.
A season-high 23 forced turnovers and 14 steals resulted in 33 of Florida’s points on the night.
“I thought it was really important,” White said. “Our activity defensively with getting tips and deflections, creating those turnovers, that was the difference in the game. It was.”
With two wins under their belts this week, the Gators go into a much-needed break.
Now, there are no more practice rounds. The next time Florida takes the court, Vanderbilt will be in town, and there is a lot to improve on before then.