Back-to-back triple digit scoring games to start the season may have spoiled the Florida Gators basketball team just a little bit.
The New Hampshire Wildcats came into the O’Connell Center and gave Florida more than it had bargained for on Sunday night.
Coming into a game with a team whose only win of the season to this point came against Division-III Wheelock College, the Gators likely did not imagine being tied at halftime.
The first half was highlighted by nine lead changes as Florida shot just 27.6 percent (8-for-29) from the floor including 12.5 percent from beyond the arc (1-for-8). A last-second UNH three-pointer left the game locked at 32 going into the locker room.
“I thought we got really good looks in the first half,” said junior guard Jalen Hudson. “Our normal looks weren’t falling, so we had to lock in defensively. That’s what we tried to do … We’ve just gotta get better.”
After Florida took an eight-point lead coming out of the half, the Wildcats slowly crept back as the Gators did not hit a single shot from the field for nearly seven minutes. With 9:27 remaining, UNH drained a three-pointer to take a 49-48 advantage.
The Wildcats’ moment of glory did not last very long as Hudson answered with a big dunk to take the lead back. That was the first of nine straight points from Hudson, and 15 of Florida’s last 20 to finish the game.
He took the game into his own hands in the final minutes with a gutsy performance to close out a 70-63 victory for the Gators.
“I didn’t want to get passive at all during the game,” Hudson said. “I tried to stay aggressive, and things started coming to me. My teammates started to look for me a little bit more. I thought we played well. I thought we closed it out well.”
Hudson finished with a team-leading 26 points on the night, with 22 of those coming in the final 20 minutes. He was 7-for-12 from the field, but really made his mark on a tightly called game with 11 made free throws.
He was also second on the team in rebounds with seven on the night, and showed a good bit of toughness on the defensive side of the ball. That’s something Mike White has been harping on with him since he got to Florida. It’s still not where it needs to be, but he is making strides.
“The biggest difference with Jalen has probably taken place in the last three weeks with his defensive energy,” White said. “It still leaves much to be desired from my standpoint, but it’s a work in progress. I think he understands it. I think there’s some buy-in there. If he’d defend as well as he scored, it’d be hard to ever take him out of the game.”
Graduate transfer guard Egor Koulechov made some big plays in the game and finished with his second consecutive double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Senior guard Chris Chiozza was close behind with 12 points and six rebounds.
Aside from those couple positives, UNH took away Florida’s entire offensive game plan. A team that had 26 threes through the first two games had just three on Sunday.
“It’s not going to be a constant, and we talked about that as much as anything else with this team,” White said on the three-point shooting. “With our ability to really fill it up on certain nights, if that’s what happens, so be it. We’ll take it. We wish it would happen every night, but we can’t count on it happening every night, so we know we’ve gotta get better on the other side and on the glass.”
The Gators were also one of only three teams in the country averaging 25 or more assists per game, but simply did not move the ball around the way they had been and finished with just three of those as well.
Transition offense, which has been another one of Florida’s strong suits, did not play any kind of role in the game as the Gators had just two fast break points.
While the offense did not live up to the hype it’s gained over the first week of the season, the defense took a small step forward. White said after the game that he thought it was the most effort he’s seen defensively over the course of 40 minutes this year.
Florida is now set to travel to the Phil Knight Invitational with a possibility of playing some of the top teams in the country. A performance like the Gators put on display Sunday will not get the job done, but White and the players think this kind of game might have actually been a blessing in the skies.
“It’s kind of like a smack in the face,” Hudson said. “We’re not as good as we think we are. We’re eighth in the country right now, but we’re not anywhere near where we should be … I’m glad we had it now, because we’re about to go out to Portland and there’s gonna be some real competition there. I feel like this was really good for us.”