Koulechov leads Florida Gators to season opening victory

Monday night’s season opener against Gardner-Webb may have been the perfect depiction of what this Florida Gators basketball team is going to be in 2017-18.

All the talk this offseason was about how much better the Gators could be on offense this season, and that showed in a 116-74 win over the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

The story of the night came from an unbelievable performance by Russian graduate transfer guard Egor Koulechov. His 34 points on 11-for-17 shooting and 6-for-9 from three-point range lifted the team to its first triple digit scoring game in a season opener since 2003.

He struggled a little in the early going, but with 12 minutes remaining in the first half, he came alive and never looked back.

At the time, Florida was going back and forth with GWU and actually went down 14-13. That was until Koulechov drained his first three-pointer of the game to take back the lead.

He went on to drain three more in a period of five minutes, and his teammates followed behind. Guards Mike Okauru, KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza hit a few of their own in that span leading to a game-changing 27-5 run to put the Gators up 40-19 late in the first half.

Florida went into halftime with a 55-32 advantage, and it was all smooth sailing from there.

Koulechov made quite the first impression in his debut. There’s not much more someone could ask for to start their Florida career. He even had the student section chanting “MVP” for him throughout the game.

“Since I decided to come here, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for, like to play that first game in this arena,” Koulechov said. “The coaching staff and the players are incredible. They helped me with the transition. It’s a lot thanks to them for me to play that way. I just hope we continue rolling and continue improving.”

It may have been a better debut than anyone on the outside could’ve predicted, but for his teammates, it was no surprise.

“I see him do it every day,” Chiozza said. “A lot of guys do stuff in practice, and then when they get in front of people, it’s not the same. He’s been playing college basketball for a long time. Honestly, I’m surprised at how many shots he did miss.”

As for Chiozza, he did not start, as he was a game time decision coming off a shoulder injury suffered in the first exhibition game. He came in less than two minutes into the game and played 23 minutes, which is low compared to what is expected of him this season, but he obviously wasn’t needed as much in this game.

He finished with just five points, but had six rebounds and led the team with six assists.

Some were curious about him being pulled a couple times in the second half, but he and head coach Mike White confirmed after the game that he was fine and it had nothing to do with his shoulder.

“I didn’t think it was a factor at all,” White said of Chiozza’s shoulder. “He actually cramped up a little bit in a couple different spots in his lower body. That’s why I yanked him a couple times.”

The Gators finished the game with a 58 percent clip (40-for-69) from the field and 52 percent (15-for-29) from long range.

Along with Koulechov’s outstanding night, junior guard Jalen Hudson had 16 points in only 19 minutes, with most of his points coming in the second half. Freshmen guards Deaundrae Ballard (14) and Mike Okauru (13) also gave a little glimpse into what they bring to the table with double digit scoring nights.

KeVaughn Allen, Florida’s leading scorer from a year ago, finished with just nine points. That just shows how much different this team is than last year’s. This team can have a 100-plus point night without one of its best offensive players even being much of a factor.

“When KeVaughn gets going, we’re gonna really hurt some people,” Hudson said. “We’ve got a lot of people that can go … I just feel like we’ve got a lot of pieces and we’re gonna continue to put them together.”

While the Gators proved what they have in the arsenal on offense, they also proved a little bit of what White has been saying all offseason about the defense. Last year, Gardner-Webb likely wouldn’t have even scored 40 points on Florida, but they had 74.

Florida had eight blocks and forced 14 turnovers, but also gave up 36 points in the paint and allowed the Runnin’ Bulldogs to shoot 42 percent.

That is not the type of defense White likes to see his team play, but it is simply where the Gators are at right now.

“I don’t know how deep we are defensively,” White said. “That was on display in the last 10 minutes of the game. I don’t know how many consistent, durable guys we have on the glass and defensively.”

That likely won’t matter if Florida can continue to outscore opponents the way it did Monday night.

Now, the Gators must prepare for a long week ahead as North Florida comes to town on Thursday and New Hampshire on Sunday.

“We’ve gotta get some rest,” White said. “We’ve got a lot of games in a little amount of time. We’ll do a lot of work through film. We’re taking off tomorrow. We’ve gotta rejuvenate and get ready for the next one.”

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Bailiegh Williams
Growing up the daughter of a baseball coach in a household that revolved around Gators sports, Bailiegh’s future working in sports was her destiny. She played four years of varsity softball at Suwannee High School and one year on softball scholarship at Gulf Coast State College. In her first year she discovered a love for journalism so she packed her bags and moved to Gainesville to finish her A.A. and begin interning for Gator Country. She is now on track to graduate from the University of Florida in 2019. In her free time, Bailiegh enjoys binge watching her favorite TV shows and spending time with her family and her two fur babies.