The Florida Gators traveled to College Station on Tuesday and put on a rather dominant performance to defeat the 11th ranked Texas A&M Aggies.
After starting the season off hot, the Aggies have now lost each of their first two SEC games, while the Gators sit at a perfect 2-0 conference record.
Florida endured a really tough stretch over the month of December, but since returning from the Christmas break, it has appeared to be slowly getting back to the team it was to start the season. The renewed confidence level was evident as the Gators took down Texas A&M 83-66.
Florida fell into a 7-3 deficit early, but quickly closed the gap to make it 9-8. Over the next ten minutes, the Gators went on a 22-8 run to set the tone for the rest of the game.
The Gators went on to take a 46-30 lead to the half. The first half was led by 10 made three pointers as the shooters were finally feeling it again.
The Aggies had a little something to say about that in the second half, but Florida always had an answer.
Florida maintained its lead until after the first media timeout. Then, in just over 30 seconds, the 16-point advantage was cut to just 10 after back-to-back A&M threes.
Mike White immediately took a timeout to settle his team down with 13:42 remaining.
Whatever he said was heard loud and clear as the Gators came out, got a few big stops and Egor Koulechov capitalized with eight straight points.
“It was huge,” White said of ending that run. “There were a lot of people here and they’re a high-level team. They made a couple of runs there … I thought we hit some timely shots to kind of quiet the place a little bit.”
The Aggies would try to cut into the lead a couple more times, but never came closer than 15 points from there on out.
The Gators finished shooting 52 percent (33-for-64) from the field and 61 percent (17-for-28) from beyond the arc.
It was no triple digit performance, but it was Florida’s best game since the PK80 Tournament, which now feels like it was ages ago.
“It was the highest I’ve seen our confidence level offensively in a while,” White said. “It was nice to see that look in our guys’ eyes as shots were falling for them, because we’ve had times, obviously, in the last month where we’ve really struggled to see the ball go through the net as we’ve worked to try to improve defensively and on the glass. And we’re not there yet. We’re certainly not a great team, but it was nice to see the ball go like it did.”
Egor Koulechov led the team for the second time in a row with 19 points, but the real story of the game came from a career-high 18-point performance by Keith Stone.
The redshirt sophomore forward received high praise from his coaches, teammates and the media heading into the season, with most figuring he would have a breakout year. It hasn’t quite shaped out that way, but he finally backed up some of the hype on Tuesday.
His moment had been a long time coming, and he was a huge factor in pushing the Gators past the Aggies.
“I’m really happy for him,” White said. “He’s really paid his dues. He got off to a really slow start. Not only in games, but in practice there for about a month or so. But the last three weeks or so, he’s kind of had a renewed work level, motor level, competitiveness level. He’s really been one of our best two or three players, in terms of production in practice over the last, I would say, three to four weeks now, and it’s coming to fruition for him a little bit.”
Chris Chiozza had 12 points, but most importantly, he got the ball moving around again for the Gators.
Chiozza set the pace in the game and led Florida with nine assists. The Gators finished with 25 assists to just seven turnovers.
“He just ran the show,” White said. “He played like a really good college senior point guard, both offensively and defensively. He made great decisions … He was an A. He’s very, very important to this team. He’s tough as nails and he makes us go.”
Defensively, Florida took advantage of A&M’s depleted roster. Due to injuries and suspensions, the Aggies were forced to play without three veteran leading scorers in DJ Hogg, Admon Gilder and Duane Wilson.
With some inexperienced guards on the floor, the Gators packed it in the interior defensively to try to stop the big duo of Tyler Davis and Robert Williams.
They each finished with 12 points, and Williams had a double-double as he tacked on 11 rebounds, but White was pleased overall with how his team defended them.
Kevarrius Hayes led the Gators defensively with seven rebounds and five of eight blocks in the game.
“I thought they played their butts off,” White said of his interior players. “Those two guys demand max effort, in terms of defending them and rebounding with them, and that’s obviously not been our strength … Those guys are such special talents. Our guys showed a lot of fight just to hold them to 12 apiece.”
Things are starting to fall back into place for Florida at the right time as conference play is now in full swing. The Gators will need to keep that same momentum going as they travel to Missouri for their second road game of the week on Saturday.