The Florida Gators basketball team took the court Saturday night more than two weeks removed from its last victory.
Florida went from stealing the national spotlight in the best way following the PK80 tournament to getting the exact opposite coverage after three consecutive losses, including two at home to unranked opponents.
The Gators traveled to Newark, New Jersey in desperate need of a win over No. 17 Cincinnati, and they got it, but head coach Mike White doesn’t think that desperation played much of a factor.
“I’m sure there’s a sense of relief,” White said. “But to go into a game like this and say that we’ve got to beat these guys because we can’t lose another one, I don’t think our guys had that mentality or I don’t think we would have played well. Maybe did it potentially provide additional urgency? Probably.”
After being called out for toughness all season long, and especially in the last week, Florida showed a little more of that in a hard-fought 66-60 win over the Bearcats.
It didn’t always look that way as Cincinnati took an early 8-2 lead, but the Gators started chipping away and soon had an 18-4 run under their belts. As Florida did that, it started showing more fight for the 50-50 balls and a want-to that’s been missing defensively for most of the season.
It wasn’t perfect or always pretty by any means, but effort was not a question mark.
“It’s been a tough week for us, that’s no secret,” said senior point guard Chris Chiozza. “We had three games this week and we were able to play pretty quickly after that tough loss. We just focused on ourselves, what we can do better, and we knew especially mental toughness, that that’s one thing, because I thought we were really soft this past week. We took a step forward today with that against a tough team.”
That was on full display in the second half as the Bearcats crept back and made it a dogfight until the very end. The game was tied 13 times with 10 lead changes.
From the moment Cincinnati tied it at 40 with 14:43 remaining, no team led by more than four points until the last 10 seconds of the game.
In the final minute, Chiozza took over to finally give the Gators a lead they would not lose.
Cincinnati missed a free throw to keep things tied up at 60 and Egor Koulechov grabbed the rebound. Chiozza hit a jumper out of the timeout to give the Gators a two-point lead.
Jalen Hudson then got a huge block on the other end and Florida got the ball back with 52 seconds remaining.
Chiozza gave a great feed to Keith Stone and he went up for the dunk that would’ve put the exclamation point on the win. It was there for the taking, but it bounced right back out and into the hands of a waiting Hudson.
A play that was almost a disaster gave the Gators possession with just 27 seconds on the clock, forcing the Bearcats to foul Chiozza.
He drained both free throws, Kevarrius Hayes got a steal (one of 21 Cincinnati turnovers on the night) to put things away and Chiozza put a cherry on top with a layup to finish off the 66-60 win.
“It was terrific,” White said on the final minutes. “It worked out. Wow. Our guys, some of it by happenstance, right place, right time, but we seemed to make the plays down the stretch that we needed to, against a team that we knew was just going to keep swinging and keep swinging. Very fortunate, of course. It was a hard-fought basketball game by both teams.”
Koulechov quietly had a great night as he finished with a team-leading 21 points and seven rebounds. Hudson went 6-for-8 from the field and 3-for-5 from beyond the arc for 17 points and Chiozza had 15 points and six assists.
No player behind them finished with more than five points, including a mostly irrelevant night from KeVaughn Allen, who had just two.
With just 66 points, the offense obviously still was not back to where it needs to be, but it was much smarter. After the first few minutes, shot selection was much better.
The Gators knew they were not hot offensively, and taking crazy shots against a good defensive team does not work, so they made some better decisions.
Florida made just six three pointers on the night, but only took 15 attempts. Instead, the Gators found ways to score without putting too much pressure on the perimeter shooting.
“We have guys that can make tough shots, but we don’t want to have to rely on that,” Koulechov said. “When a guy is going, he’s hit a couple shots in a row, we don’t mind him taking a tough shot. We just really focused on not taking anything tough tonight. Just make that extra pass, get the ball flowing around again like we were earlier in the year. And that’s when we were actually shooting a lot more threes, getting more open looks. So that’s what we were focusing on, just moving the ball and getting great shots every possession.”
After a long, mentally and physically exhausting week, the Gators have an entire week off before heading down to Sunrise, Florida to take on Clemson in the Orange Bowl Classic. It could have been a long week off without a win, but now Florida has some positive energy to move forward with.