Saturday’s win had been a long time coming for the Florida Gators. In five previous meetings with the Vanderbilt Commodores since Mike White took over in 2015, Florida could not find a way out of a losing streak that just kept adding up.
Now, White can finally say he has a win over every team in the SEC as the Gators pulled out an 81-74 victory to open up conference play.
“It’s big time,” Egor Koulechov said of starting conference play with a win. “We talked about how this is kind of like a new season. Everything that happened before, not that it doesn’t count, but we’ve just gotta forget about it and move on because conference play is where it’s at. It was good for us to get this first win.”
It’s been a tough season for Florida defensively, but things finally clicked in the first half against the Commodores. The Gators scored the first nine points of the game while Vanderbilt couldn’t find the hole for the first seven minutes.
With the Commodores on the board, KeVaughn Allen drained back-to-back three pointers and a jumper to go up 21-8.
Florida proceeded to pile onto that momentum to go on a 16-3 run, which made it 29-11 with 5:38 remaining in the half.
With the help of six blocks in the first half and a clip of just 28 percent from the field by Vanderbilt, the Gators held the Commodores to their second-lowest halftime score of the season with a 40-20 advantage.
“It was probably our best 20 minutes, in my opinion,” White said. “It was the best half that we’ve played this year overall … We’ve gotta try to put 40 together at some point.”
Saturday was not the day to put 40 together, as things went a little downhill in the second half.
While it wasn’t nearly as pretty, the Gators always found a way to keep Vanderbilt at arm’s length when it started to cut into the lead.
Even with what seemed like an extensive advantage for Florida, it never felt like it was going to be that easy to come out on top.
The Commodores made that known when they came within seven at the 10:40 mark.
Koulechov found his way to the foul line a few seconds later. After a couple of made free throws, Chris Chiozza took over to score six straight points for the Gators.
Then, Koulechov added a couple more free throws and Deaundrae Ballard hit a three-pointer to extend the lead all the way back to 14 points with six minutes remaining.
Of course, that still wasn’t going to be enough. Vanderbilt answered with a 16-6 run to make things really interesting as time dwindled away.
The Commodores missed a free throw, grabbed the rebound and Riley LaChance made Florida pay with yet another three-pointer (one of 12 on the night for Vanderbilt) to make it 74-70.
With 1:38 on the clock and the Commodores holding all the momentum, the Gators needed a big play.
One last time, Chiozza provided it as he drove to the basket for a layup in the final seconds of the shot clock to give Florida a six-point cushion.
Allen picked up a foul at the other end, but the Commodores made just one free throw and had to start fouling with 27 seconds on the clock.
The Gators closed out a strong game at the free throw line and were able to hold Vanderbilt’s hot shooters off just a little longer to close out the win.
“I thought we played with really good poise overall in the second half offensively while we were trying to fend off their mad run,” White said. “They’re a load offensively, and they’ve got a number of guys who can make shots. They hit some big ones. And I didn’t think that we lost our minds like we’ve done a couple of times this year, where they go on a 5-0 run and, ‘Boy, I’ve gotta go hit a big one.’”
The Gators essentially won the game at the line as they made 90 percent (27-for-30) of their free throw attempts on the night, led by a perfect 10-for-10 performance from Koulechov.
After a bit of a tough stretch for Koulechov offensively, he finally got some of his mojo back to lead the team on both ends of the court with 22 points and eight rebounds.
“When you feel like you’re in a slump, it’s kind of worse, because it’s in your head,” Koulechov said. “For me personally, it was kind of just trying to go back to basics. My teammates are really great. They were just telling me to keep shooting. Every timeout, every practice, every day, just keep shooting.”
Chiozza (17) and Allen (16) also finished with double figures.
Defensively, Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone combined for seven of Florida’s season-high 10 blocks on the night.
After a seemingly endless stretch of poor-to-mediocre play for the Gators over the last few weeks, things finally started looking up at the right time on Saturday.
It almost looked like the team that started the season playing like it was ready for the Final Four. Almost, at least.
Florida will need to be that team and even more as it travels to College Station to take on the fifth ranked Texas A&M Aggies on Tuesday, but for now, it’s good to start SEC play on the right foot.
“It feels good. You come back from Christmas break, and there’s no school for these guys and you can ramp it up a little bit. You spend a lot of time with these guys, and they worked. We’ve had some adversity. We’ve got two managers/walk-ons who get us to 10 players to play some full court, and guys responded. To come out and play the way we did the first 20 is exciting, and now you’ve gotta build off of it.”