NEWARK, N.J. — On a night when bodies banged and elbows flailed, No. 5 Florida almost wasn’t rewarded for its toughest effort of the season against No. 17 Cincinnati.
But thanks to some big shots and big plays by senior point guard Chris Chiozza in crunch time Saturday, the Gators found a way to snap their three-game losing streak with a 66-60 win over the Bearcats at the Never Forget Tribute Classic.
Before a pro-Gator crowd of 9,112, Florida (6-3) rallied from down six points early and four points in the second half in a game that featured 13 ties and 10 lead changes. Florida came into the game coming off back-to-back home losses to Florida State and Loyola-Chicago earlier in the week.
“For my guys to have endured what they’ve endured over the past week, it’s been a really rough week for us,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Huge bounce-back win for us.”
It took more physicality, more focus on defense and some heroics from Chiozza late to pull it off. Chiozza scored UF’s final six points, including the go-ahead short floater in the lane over 5-foot-10 Cincinnati point guard Cameron Broome that put Florida up to stay 62-60 with 1:10 remaining.
“We tried to overload one side of the floor and allow me to find guys that were moving,” Chiozza said. “I just found an open lane instead and I found a good shot and I took it.’
Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson also came up with a pair of big plays down the stretch. First, Hudson partially blocked a 3-point attempt from Cincinnati forward Gary Clark, and on a double tap off a Cincinnati possession, Florida retained possession with 53 seconds left. Then, after forward Keith Stone missed a wide-open dunk with 24 seconds left, Hudson tip-toed the sideline to secure a long offensive rebound. Hudson handed the ball off to Chiozza, who was fouled and made both free throws with 20.7 seconds left to put Florida up 64-60.
Florida junior center Kevarrius Hayes helped finish off the game with a steal, which led to a Chiozza breakaway layup to put Florida uo 66-60 with 10 seconds left.
“We seemed to make plays down the stretch that we needed to against a team that we knew was going to just keep swinging,” White said.
Chiozza is no stranger to making shots in the tri-state area. Last March, Chiozza adorned the back pages of New York City tabloids for hitting his full-court sprint, game winning 3-pointer over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden.
“I didn’t really think about that when we got here,” Chiozza said. “I like playing everywhere. It doesn’t matter where we’re playing. I’ll come out and play the same way every game. It was a nice gym out there. We liked the goals, we hit a lot of shots.”
Florida senior forward Egor Koulechov led three UF players in double figures with 21 points and seven rebounds. Hudson added 17 points and Chiozza had 15 points and six assists.
After struggling from the perimeter in its last two games (8-47 from 3-point range), Florida was more selective in its long-range shots against a Cincinnati defense that overplayed the perimeter. The Gators still managed to go 6 of 15 from 3-point range, including a big 3-pointer by Hudson that put UF up 58-55 with 3:30 left.
The Gators returned to a starting lineup that was effective at the PK80 Tournament in Portland, going with Keith Stone at center and four guards (Chiozza, Hudson, Koulechov and KeVaughn Allen). To contend with the physical Cincinnati inside tandem of Clark and 6-9 center Kyle Washington, Florida consistently double-teamed the post. At times, Cincinnati had its way on the boards, outrebounding Florida 35-33 and outscoring the Gators 14-8 in second-chance points. But Florida was able to offset that by forcing 21 turnovers and scoring 27 points off turnovers.
“We did something a little bit differently out of necessity in terms of doubling the post,” White said. “We spent the last 48 hours working on it. A couple of times it backfired and wasn’t really crisp, but it did slow Gary Clark down a little bit and Kyle Washington down a little bit.”
Clark was held to nine points on 4-of-8 shooting from the floor, while Washington had 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting for the Bearcats (7-2). Washington had four turnovers.
“It was a big emphasis before the game, because they’re just a tough team,” Koulechov said. “They post up a lot. We had to bring some help there. We knew we had to block them out every time.”
The Gators fell behind 10-4 early, but quickly came back to tie the score at 10 on six straight points from Koulechov, who scored 11 points in the first half, while Hudson had nine points, helping the Gators build a 34-28 halftime lead.
Cincinnati turned up its defensive intensity in the second half, forcing six turnovers during a 25-15 run that allowed the Bearcats to take a 53-49 lead. Koulechov then helped spark UF’s comeback, first with a putback to cut Cincinnati’s lead to 53-51, then by sinking a pair of free throws to tie the score at 53 after getting fouled on a defensive rebound attempt.
“It becomes a one-possession game and when that happens, you can look back to a million things,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. “Break down here, break down there, but at the end of the day, they were just a little bit better than us.”
For a night, at least, the Gators manned up.
“We grew up a little bit tonight,” White said. “That’s the toughest that we’ve shown.”
FREE THROWS: Florida improved to 13-5 in neutral court games over the past two seasons. … White improved to 6-12 against ranked teams in his UF tenure. … Freshman forward Chase Johnson sat out his third straight games with an undisclosed illness. … White appreciated the Florida fan support in New Jersey. “To lose three in a row to have the Gator contingent come up here, it was really neat,” White said. “It was a cool thing to see.”
No. 5 FLORIDA 66, No. 17 CINCINNATI 60
Washington 4-8 2-2 11, Clark 4-8 1-2 9, Cumberland 4-12 0-1 10, Jenifer 0-3 0-0 0, Evans 4-13 5-7 13, Scott 0-1 0-0 0, Nsoseme 0-0 0-0 0, Brooks 1-1 0-0 2, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Broome 6-8 2-4 15. Totals 23-54 10-16 60.
Stone 1-8 2-2 5, Chiozza 6-10 2-2 15, Koulechov 8-15 4-4 21, Hudson 6-8 2-2 17, Allen 1-5 0-1 2, Hayes 0-3 2-3 2, Gak 0-1 0-0 0, Ballard 1-4 2-3 4, Okauru 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-54 14-17 66.
Halftime_Florida 34-28. 3-Point Goals_Cincinnati 4-15 (Cumberland 2-6, Washington 1-1, Broome 1-2, Jenifer 0-2, Evans 0-4), Florida 6-15 (Hudson 3-5, Chiozza 1-2, Stone 1-3, Koulechov 1-3, Allen 0-2). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Cincinnati 33 (Clark 13), Florida 28 (Koulechov 7). Assists_Cincinnati 4 (Cumberland 2), Florida 9 (Chiozza 6). Total Fouls_Cincinnati 21, Florida 17.