With a 71-54 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Wednesday night, the Florida Gators extended a six-game winning streak and moved to a 4-0 record in SEC play.
It all started with one man—Egor Koulechov. Without Koulechov, the Gators would have been dead in the water in the first part of the game.
He scored the Florida’s first 13 points while the rest of the team went 0-for-8 and no other player made a single shot until eight and a half minutes in.
To close out that stretch, Koulechov made three straight three-pointers, including one from way downtown, in less than two minutes. He was able to dig Florida out of a 7-2 hole and into a 13-12 lead that they would never give up.
“That was big time,” Jalen Hudson said of Koulechov’s start. “It definitely fueled us in the first half. He was hitting deep ones, big ones. He was doing everything.”
The Gators went up by as many as 10 in the first half, but the Bulldogs cut it back to five at halftime.
With 15:56 remaining in the game, Mississippi State was within three points of the lead.
Despite being under the weather and not having his greatest night offensively, Chris Chiozza quickly silenced that run as he scored seven points for Florida in 30 seconds. He hit back-to-back three-pointers, drew a foul on his second and completed a four-point play to push the Gators back ahead 45-35.
The Bulldogs continued to try to muster up some momentum, but that’s when Kevarrius Hayes took over. He went up for a pair of huge blocks on back-to-back Mississippi State possessions and came up with a steal after the second.
Hayes had another block a few possessions later to completely let all the wind out of the Bulldogs’ sails.
“He was all over the place,” Hudson said. “That’s why we call him Spiderman. He was doing everything. It felt like he had 10 blocks. I don’t know how many he actually had, but he was blocking everything. They were having trouble. Even when he wasn’t blocking, they were thinking about him when they were driving to the rim.”
After those shutdown plays on defense, the Gators just piled onto their lead as they went onto a 13-2 run to go up by as many as 23 in the final minutes and close out the win.
Koulechov led the team with 23 points, going 9-for-13 from the field, including 4-for-5 from long range, while tying for a team-high eight rebounds as well.
Hudson finished with 12 points to continue an outstanding offensive season as he’s scored double figures in 15 of 16 games this year.
Keith Stone performed well for the third game in a row with 10 points and eight boards on the night.
It was an all-around gritty performance by the Gators, but no one showed more grit than Chiozza, who finished with 10 points, seven assists and three steals.
After making the game-winning play to defeat Missouri on the road on Saturday, Chiozza came down with strep throat and had not touched a basketball all week.
Even just a few hours before the game, he did not know how much he would be able to play, if at all. He came out and provided 28 good minutes for Florida, and inspired his teammates to play with that same effort.
“He’s the epitome of leading by example,” said head coach Mike White. “He’s not the most vocal guy, but to give it every ounce of energy you’ve got when your teammates know you’re feeling like crap, and playing well, it just boosts the rest of your team.”
Mississippi State was the bigger and tougher team on paper, but that was not evident in this game.
The Gators forced the Bulldogs into 16 turnovers, held a 38-31 advantage on the boards and let them get to the foul line for just seven free throw attempts. All of this led to just 54 Mississippi State points, the fewest scored on Florida all season.
White attributed the improved defensive play over the last several games to better communication, mental toughness, leadership and just the will to become a little scrappier.
Whatever the reason, Florida is shaping out to be a completely different team than it was just a few weeks ago. The Gators are gaining confidence with every game and making a push to be one of the hottest teams in the SEC.
“There’s definitely something about winning,” Hudson said. “Once you get a little taste of it, you want some more, some more, some more. That’s kind of what we’re doing now, but we don’t want to get complacent at all. In conference play, every night is gonna be hard, so we’ve just gotta continue to get better.”