Dooley: A Florida Senior Day to remember

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Florida Gators guard Egor Koulechov, right, checks on Chris Chiozza after his teammate was poked in the eye by a Kentucky player Saturday at the O'Connell Center. Chiozza made both foul shots. Gators won 80-67. [Alan Youngblood/Gainesville Sun]

The last thing Chris Chiozza did on the floor of the O’ Dome after his last game on that court as a Gator was to sign an orange and blue cast. It belonged 8-year-old Nathan Vincent and Chiozza signed right there between “Matty” and “Colin”, two of Nathan’s classmates at Wiles Elementary.

And then he walked off to chants of “Cheez” to celebrate and nurse the welt under his right eye that he received late in the game. It was about the only thing that didn’t go right on Senior Day.

Egor Koulechov had one, too, under his left eye. His came on the first play of the game against Kentucky.

“We’re twins,” Koulechov said with a smile.

Earlier, they had left the game separately to thunderous roars from the crowd. One guy who spent four years creating a legacy, the other who became a fan favorite in only one season.

One major thing in common — they both played their tails off all year.

And so they were rewarded the way everyone would love to go out on a Senior Day. They beat their rivals and it wasn’t close. They finished off a three-game stretch of dynamic basketball with a surprisingly easy win over the hottest team in the conference.

They spanked the team that promised to spank them.

“It was up in our practice facility so we could see it everywhere,” KeVaughn Allen said of the comments from Quade Green earlier in the week about Kentucky’s plan to “spank” the Gators. “I guess you could say we spanked them. We beat them.”

Down yet another big man, Florida held its own on the boards (UK had a mere 36-34 advantage). The Gators led by as many as 23 in the second half and won by 13 despite Kentucky shooting 18 free throws in the second half and Florida missing 10 straight shots during one stretch.

And they finished off a sweep of the hated Wildcats, which in itself makes this a successful season.

“It has been rewarding to watch these guys grow,” said their coach Mike White. “To have gone through what these guys have gone through.”

White was wearing his own trophy of a fierce battle won, a T-shirt under his suit coat after he was drenched by his players to celebrate both his birthday Friday and a 20-win season Saturday.

“They got me good,” he said.

It had been a restless 48 hours for White because he wanted so badly for his seniors — including John Egbunu — to go out with a bang. This is a coach who has confessed to not knowing what to expect from his team.

What if — gasp — they had one of those games at the bottom of the roller-coaster and sent the seniors out with an ugly loss?

“I didn’t sleep well at all,” White said.

And then — while firing up praise for his seniors after the game — he said something that said it all about his point guard.

“Now his legacy,” White said, “isn’t about the shot.”

Even during his senior presentation, Chiozza’s sweet 3 last year against Wisconsin was prominently featured, as well it should have been. But on this day and in this season, the UF all-time assists leader cannot be defined only by that moment in Madison Square Garden.

Instead, it’s about so much more. It’s only a part of a special career that puts him in the conversation for best point guard to ever play at Florida.

This wasn’t Chiozza’s best game. He missed all of his 3-point attempts. The only category he led Florida in was turnovers.

But on this day, his teammates were on a mission. Allen put together a crazy stat line (seven rebounds and seven assists). Jalen Hudson remained on an offensive roll with 22 points and a big 3 when Kentucky threatened to make it interesting. Keith Stone played the way Keith Stone needs to play for Florida to be successful.

And then there was the other active senior. Koulechov had 16 points in 23 minutes before waving goodbye to the Rowdies.

“It was more than I expected,” he said of the emotions of the day.

And it couldn’t have been much more satisfying.

“It hit me when I went out there early and started looking around,” Chiozza said. “This would be my last game here.”

You might have welled up a little when he came off for the last time, waving to the crowd through one good eye.

“I didn’t care,” he said. “I just had to look around so I could see everybody.”

And then, a Gator chomp when he got to the bench.

The perfect way to end it. Even if it’s not over.

Because that’s one of the best parts for the Gators about winning Saturday. They don’t play again until Friday night.

Time to enjoy a perfect day. Time to refocus on the postseason that lies ahead.

“There’s a little cushion,” White said.

These guys deserve it.

 

16 COMMENTS

  1. Great all around game. The only negative I saw was in the second half again, when they started slowing it down

    • Yes, again! We need to stay aggressive because of our lack of inside game and you think lesson learned after all the times it’s happened! That being said, we are playing our best bball of the year so job well done Gators!

  2. Fire the coach! Will never win a title. Fire Sully too. I’m a Gator fan on a message board and I know everything.

  3. you had to love the 0 4s ,, but these guys are terrific, sometimes they are just fun to watch…. Gator Basketball at its best !

  4. Great win!! Best since I saw the gators with Tony Miller beat kentucky in old alligator alley. Adolph Rupp was beside himself. I think there was a streaker during the game to add to the fun. Go gators!!!.

    • I was there also gg. That was when they beat the legendary Adolph Rupp, who dubbed Florida Gym, ” The Snakepit”. Woooooweeee!!!

  5. Congrats to Chiozza on the assist record and for a great Gator career representing the university well! Thanks to Egor for doing all the “dirty work” and producing a memorable season. Good luck to Egbunu, and thanks for all the rim rattling dunks the two previous years. Hope they can keep it going for several more games.

  6. Best team effort all year! Didn’t hurt any that Hudson seemed to not be able to miss most of the time. This team could win the SEC tournament. Its hard to communicate to these young men how short 4 years and life overall is. As I watched the seniors wave to the crowd yesterday, couldn’t help but think about my last minutes as a UF student was at the O-dome at my UF graduation, 37 years ago (BSCE)!!! Two sons, one daughter (UF Masters in Special Ed), four grandkids, 19 year season ticket holder (football) and a whole career later, I wonder all the time at how fast it went by! My grandparents are all long gone…they were young, lived a full life time and have already been gone for over 20-30 years!!! Guys, you had better think about where you want your Spirit to reside when the flesh gives it up! A great place or a very very bad place. That time is coming. Not being morbid, just real. Go Gators!

  7. Ray: The Kentucky zone had a lot to do with Florida slowing it down. When they went to it about halfway through the second half, the Gators had to be patient. I don’t know why UK didn’t play it the whole game.

    • 10-4 that…It did slow the Gators down and actually stopped them for several minutes. If I recall, it was a Hudson’s three that ended the eight straight misses period, then they started back to picking some easy inside shots. It is a chess match much of the time. Live sports is the best TV entertainment. Like Phil today, golf seems to be hitting another historic hot streak.

  8. I totally agree with your ”zone” assessment, Pat. So when (not if) the Gators see the ”zone D” again, they must drive through it, and score or dish (with Cheese & Hudson, as they’re great at that).
    Or SHOOT OVER IT with Allen and Koulechov.
    Just do it, Gators! GO GATORS!

  9. Great out for Chris Chiozza. He deserves every accolade and the love of Gator Nation. For the guys I’ve seen with my own eyes, the M & M boys were the best/my personal favorites. The big guys that won the National Championships were amazing. Cheez is right there with them for creating great memories. Way to go dude. Go Gators.

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