The Florida Gators left the court with boos filling Rupp Arena on Saturday night as they succeeded in what has nearly become an impossible task—beating the Kentucky Wildcats at home.
It had been 57 games since an unranked team defeated the Wildcats on their home court, and 30 games since an SEC opponent had done so. Florida ended both of those streaks in one clean swoop.
Well, clean might not exactly be the word. It was ugly, but the Gators got it done.
From the very beginning, the game seemed like it would be an endless back and forth, and it did not disappoint in that regard.
Neither team led by more than four points until Kentucky went on a 7-0 run with just under seven minutes to go in the first half. During that span, the Gators went on a scoring drought lasting three and a half minutes.
After spending several minutes on the bench getting treatment for cramps, Chris Chiozza got back in and hit a jumper to end the drought. It kick-started a run for Florida, and he eventually got fouled and hit a pair of free throws to regain a 29-28 lead.
A little more back and forth tied it back up at 31 with 37 seconds left in the first half. KeVaughn Allen came up clutch with a jumper to close out the half and give the Gators the lead and some momentum going to the locker room.
That carried over into the second half as Florida went up 45-37 within the first five minutes.
Of course, the Wildcats weren’t going away that easily.
Kentucky started to cut into Florida’s lead, but the Gators maintained a slim advantage all the way to the 6:57 mark.
With 6:24 remaining, the Wildcats got a steal and took it all the way down the court for a layup to go up 53-51. At this point, the arena was erupting and it just felt like the time Kentucky would put it away as it has found a way to do time and time again in the past.
Chiozza has a way of coming up time and time again as well, and he did. He drained a three-pointer with 3:29 on the clock to take back a 58-56 lead.
Kentucky answered with a layup to tie it, but Florida had the answers the rest of the way. A Kevarrius Hayes jumper and a Keith Stone layup combined with some timely stops on the defensive end extended Florida’s lead to 62-58 with 44 seconds left, forcing the Wildcats to foul the rest of the way.
Allen made a couple free throws to extend the lead to six points. Barring any silly mistakes, a Florida win now felt pretty secure, but the drama had not even started yet.
Kevin Knox cut the lead in half with a three-pointer with 34 seconds to go, giving Kentucky a little bit of hope.
Hudson was next up at the free throw line, and did his job to make it 66-61. Just four seconds later, Wenyen Gabriel followed Knox’s footsteps as he banked in a three. All of a sudden, it was a two-point game.
Stone missed his chance at a one-and-one with 19 seconds remaining, and the ball was in Kentucky’s court.
Egor Koulechov blocked a Kentucky attempt to drive it in, but it stayed in the Wildcats’ possession.
They proceeded to go at it again, and this time Jalen Hudson went up for the block. The crowd had already shown its displeasure with the no-call on Koulechov, but this one was much hairier as Hudson got away with some pretty significant contact.
Still, no fouls were called, but the Wildcats somehow had one more chance with two seconds to go.
The Gators didn’t even allow an opportunity for that as Chiozza got ahold of the ball on the inbounds play and Florida came away with a 66-64 victory.
Plenty of controversy followed the no-calls in the final seconds of play, including Kentucky head coach John Calipari making his thoughts on it known following the game. Mike White didn’t see it quite the same way.
“I saw my guys flying around, trying to make plays, hands on basketballs down the stretch, really active,” he said. “And again, resiliency.”
It took a lot of resiliency for Florida to come away with the win on Saturday as it faced plenty of adversity.
Neither team shot the ball well from long-range, but for the Gators it was especially poor. Up until the final minutes, Florida continued to take the same contested shots that were not going in all night, leading to a 6-for-30 finish from three.
Instead, the Gators had to find another avenue to get the win, and that was through a little more defensive toughness and a lot of poise.
Florida was by far the smaller team in the game, but found a way to battle Kentucky’s length. While the Wildcats still outrebounded the Gators, it was not for lack of effort, as it might have been earlier in the season.
Along with that, Florida forced Kentucky into 16 turnovers while only turning it over seven times.
“That’s about as hard as we’ve played on the glass,” White said. “Hopefully it’s just educational for us in understanding that we have an ability to win ugly. You can go 6-of-30 and find a way to win … Maybe this team is a little bit tougher. They believe in the fact that we’re a little bit tougher and better defensively than we were in October.”
Statistically, Hudson led Florida with 17 points, followed by 14 from Stone and 11 from Allen. Koulechov and Kevarrius Hayes led the team with nine boards apiece.
Still, there is a single player that just seems to make or break the Gators, and that is Chiozza. When he’s in, Florida looks more confident and comfortable, and when he’s not, it’s like the Gators are just counting down the seconds until he’s back out there.
Chiozza finished with 13 points and six rebounds while dishing eight assists to just one turnover.
“Wow,” White said. “Eight and one in this environment. To play with that amount of poise and toughness, with six rebounds, the timely shots, the timely assists. And the guy had cramps the whole second half. I can’t say enough about Chris Chiozza. I’m really glad he’s my point guard.”
The Gators now sit at a 6-1 record in conference play with one of the toughest games of the season in the books. That keeps Florida at the top of the conference standings, along with fellow one-loss Auburn.
With that, the Gators move on to a date with South Carolina at home on Wednesday.
“We’ve got 11 conference games left,” White said. “It’s a big win. Wednesday night’s gonna be a big opportunity, and a very, very challenging game for us. It’s a marathon. If we want to continue to progress and develop, we’ve got to approach it as such. It’s huge, let’s celebrate, let’s feel good about it tonight. And we’ve gotta get back to work tomorrow.”