It’s been a long season for the Florida Gators, but things are finally starting to come to fruition. Through the ups, downs and everything in between, this team managed to close out its regular season better than anyone likely imagined.
The Gators took the previous two games over Auburn and Alabama in rather dominant fashion, but the question was whether they could uphold that type of play with a hot Kentucky team coming to town on Saturday.
After an emotional Senior Day celebration for John Egbunu, Egor Koulechov and Chris Chiozza, Florida took the court and handled its business one last time in the O’Dome this season as it defeated the Wildcats 80-67.
Kentucky stayed right in Florida’s back pocket for most of the first half as the Gators were up just 20-17 with 9:52 on the clock.
Gorjok Gak made it to the line to complete a three-point play and push the lead to eight points with 6:52 to go in the half.
All the while, Florida fans and players alike were just waiting for Chiozza to get his record-breaking assist out of the way. Coming into the game, he needed just one more to jump Erving Walker and becoming the program’s career assists leader.
At the 6:06 mark, he found Keith Stone for a three pointer, and from there, it was like everyone in the building (except the Wildcats) took a sigh of relief.
Kentucky started feeling the pressure and was forced to take a timeout, but it was too late. The Gators had found their rhythm.
Jalen Hudson hit back-to-back threes followed by a couple of layups from Gak and Kevarrius Hayes to extend Florida’s lead all the way to 17 late in the half.
The Wildcats brought it back within 12 with 32 seconds to go, but for the second time in the last three games, KeVaughn Allen hit a last second three pointer to give the Gators a 48-33 lead and a little more momentum going to the locker room.
Florida picked up right where it left off in the second half as it pushed the lead all the way to 23 points by the first media timeout.
Kentucky, of course, wasn’t playing at its highest level, but it wasn’t going to let the Gators get away that easily.
From the 14:40 mark all the way to 6:19, Florida missed 11 straight field goal attempts. The Gators’ inability to get a shot to go paired with some uncharacteristic Chiozza turnovers and silly fouls by several guys over that span put the Wildcats right back in the game.
Suddenly, it was 65-56 and feeling like Florida just might revert to its old ways.
Hudson put up a three pointer that bounced around the rim for an eternity before finally falling and ending the drought. The Gators gripped back onto the lead from there and would never let the Wildcats get back within striking distance.
Chiozza took a hard hit to the eye with a minute remaining, but that allowed for the most special moment of the season to take place.
After making his first free throw, he asked the crowd to get up for him one last time. And with the game in the bag, both he and Egor Koulechov were able to sub out to a grand ovation and give each of their teammates a hug.
“You want it to go that way, but you never know,” Chiozza said of the moment. “It was just amazing to go off that way, me and Egor. It’s a moment I’m never gonna forget, walking off the court and saying goodbye to the whole crowd for the last time.”
Although Koulechov has only been with the Gators for one year, he has been a huge part of this season’s success. The moment was just as special for him.
“I didn’t expect to get so emotional,” he said. “Just because it’s been a great experience for me. I wish I could give this school another three years coming in as a freshman, but it is what it is. I’m glad I came here for one season. It’s been great. I could not ask for more.”
Head coach Mike White also shared an embrace with his seniors as they came off the court for the final time. He preached on keeping emotions in check all week leading up to the game, but when the time came, even he couldn’t hold them back.”
“I’m so thrilled for our three seniors,” White said. “I didn’t sleep much at all last night. The last 48 hours have been pretty stressful. I probably need to lecture myself more than my team about not being emotional … I wanted this to be a positive memory for them, and their teammates did that for them. They laid it on the line. And all three of those seniors will always have this memory.”
Back to basketball and out of the feelings, Hudson went off for the Gators for the third game in a row as he scored a team leading 22 points. Behind him, Koulechov dropped 16 while KeVaughn Allen got 11 points, and led Florida with seven rebounds (tied career high), seven assists (career high) and three steals.
White had high praise for both Hudson and Allen following the game.
“I think there’s been a couple changes with Jalen,” White said. “One is he’s playing more minutes because he’s defending better. We’ve said that since the first game … I think he’s taking better shots. He’s been very aggressive. He’s not overthinking quite as much, him and KeVaughn both. I think this is the first time all year where both of them are playing with that mentality at the same time.”
With the huge win, the Gators have sent a message to the college basketball world that they are a force to be reckoned with in the post-season. This team is playing its best basketball of the season, and it gets its first chance to prove that the inconsistencies are in the past this week in the SEC Tournament.
“It’s been rewarding to watch these guys grow,” White said. “To have gone through what this team’s gone through and to play the way that we’re playing … We really turned the page and started playing the way this team needed to play and do it more consistently. It’s coming together for us. Now, obviously, it’s about maintaining. It’s about maintaining and improving, and not about feeling good about how we’ve been playing.”
Florida locked up the No. 3 seed in the tournament and will play its first game at 9:30 p.m. on Friday.