The Florida Gators have had great success in five seasons competing in the SEC/Big-12 Challenge.
They continued that on Saturday with a statement victory over the Baylor Bears at home and are now 4-1 in the event.
It was all Florida from the very beginning as it scored on the very first possession and held a lead throughout the entirety of the game.
Egor Koulechov banked in a three on the very next possession to give the Gators a 5-0 lead, and it just started to feel like it would be a good day.
Koulechov drained a couple more three-pointers back-to-back just before the first media timeout, then Keith Stone and Jalen Hudson combined for back-to-back triples right out of it. All of a sudden, Florida had a 20-7 lead less than seven minutes into the game.
Baylor brought it back within nine with 9:40 remaining in the half, but Chris Chiozza had something to say about that. He went on to score the Gators’ next 13 points over a span of three minutes to maintain a double-digit lead.
The Bears cut into the lead again as Florida went on a drought from the field, but a KeVaughn Allen three-pointer with the final seconds ticking off sent the Gators into the locker room holding a 43-31 advantage.
Florida maintained a comfortable edge the rest of the way, never letting Baylor get closer than three possessions.
The last effort the Bears made to come within 10 midway through the second half, Hudson silenced it with a run of 10 straight points that pushed the Gators up 68-50.
“We ran the same play for him for about three or four straight possessions,” Koulechov said. “He can score it. That’s what he does. He can have two points at halftime and finish with 26 at the end of the game. He’s that type of player, and we’re fortunate to have him.”
Florida extended its lead to as many as 24 points in the final minutes and came away with an 81-60 win.
The Gators were a force from beyond the arc on Saturday as they went 14-for-25 and made eight of their first nine attempts after going just 12-for-53 in the two previous games.
Florida also shot more than 50 percent from the field (27-for-52) for the fifth time this season.
“We shot the ball so well,” Koulechov said. “When we’re shooting it like that, it’s real hard to beat us.”
Chiozza was the player of the game as he finished with 20 points (7-for-10 from the field, 4-for-7 from three), six rebounds and six assists to just one turnover.
“Chris Chiozza was amazing today,” said head coach Mike White. “I can’t imagine he’s had a better game than that off the top of my head. I’m hoping he can play that well again, but that’d be asking a lot … He put on a show today. He was fantastic.”
After Chiozza set the tone with 15 points in the first half, Hudson took over with 14 of his 17 total points in the second half.
Koulechov finished just behind him with 16 points and led the team with eight rebounds, while Allen quietly had a 10-point day.
Defensively, Florida played as well as anyone could’ve hoped for.
The Gators held the Bears to 3-for-15 from long range, forced 15 turnovers, allowed just eight second chance points despite 11 offensive boards and got six blocks, led by five from Kevarrius Hayes.
Along with that, Florida limited Baylor’s best scorer Manu Lacomte as he got in foul trouble early and never had a chance to get in a rhythm.
“I’m very pleased with our effort today, especially defensively,” White said. “We didn’t put 40 together, but it’s probably as good a defensive performance as we’ve played, against a very talented offensive team that executes really well. To bounce back the way we did … I thought we showed some character. Our guys let it be known that it is important to us to be better than we’ve been on the defensive end.”
The Gators now have some momentum as they enter the final stretch of the season, and it’s SEC play the rest of the way.
Following the last two games, Koulechov has called this team a “rollercoaster team”, and that is the best way to describe it. Florida has struggled with making big jumps only to have another setback all season long.
The win over Baylor put the Gators moving back in the right direction, but now they must find a way to stay there.
“We’ve just gotta keep our edge and keep that chip on our shoulder,” Hudson said. “We just come out completely different when we lose, and I think part of it is because we celebrate the wins too much. We’re supposed to win. That’s what we came here to do, so I don’t think we should celebrate them. I think we get too high when we celebrate. So, we just need to try to stay even keel and be on a steady incline.”