In a week in which just eight scholarship players were healthy to practice, against a team that had its number in recent seasons, Florida played its best 20 minutes of basketball in more than a month Saturday against Vanderbilt.
The second half was more of an adventure, however, but the Gators held on to beat the Commodores 81-74 before an announced sellout of 10,274 at the O’Connell Center.
Florida (9-4, 1-0 SEC) won its sixth straight SEC opener and snapped a five-game losing streak against the Commodores. Florida coach Mike White joked that he kept his sport jacket on the whole game, in part, to change his luck vs. Vanderbilt. In his third season at UF, White has now posted wins against all 13 other SEC teams, improving to 1-5 against the Commodores. Florida’s last win against Vanderbilt came on Feb. 18, 2015 in Billy Donovan’s final season.
“We’ve had some adversity,” White said. “We’ve had two managers slash walkons to get us to play fullcourt and guys responded. To come out and play the way we did in the first 20, guys responded. And now we’ve got to build off that.”
Florida raced to a 40-20 halftime lead, but allowed Vanderbilt to score 54 points and shoot 51.4 percent from the field in the second half. Florida managed to hold on due to a stellar day at the free throw line, shooting 90 percent (27-30). Senior guard Egor Koulechov went 10 of 10 from the free throw line and led three UF scorers in double figures with 22 points and eight rebounds. Senior point guard Chris Chiozza added 17 points, three assists and made some big baskets down the stretch.
With Florida holding a 74-70 lead with under one minute remaining, Chiozza hit a driving layup with 43 seconds left to extend UF’s lead to 76-70. From there, Florida made five of its final six free throw attempts to close out the game.
“We did a good job of not panicking, not slowing the ball up either, trying to milk the clock,” Chiozza said. “We kept trying to push the pace and attack and we were able to do that and get to the line and that got us some easy points.”
Florida entered its SEC opener a MASH unit, with Jalen Hudson limited all week in practice due to an illness, center Gorjok Gak out with sore knees and freshman forward Chase Johnson still out in concussion protocol. Gak and Johnson sat out the game, while Hudson, UF’s leading scorer at 18.1 points per game, scored eight points in 14 minutes off the bench.
Still, the Gators got off to an inspired start, holding Vanderbilt scoreless more than seven minutes into the game. Florida jumped to an early 9-0 lead before Vanderbilt scored its first basket on a dunk by Clevon Brown at the 12:57 mark of the first half.
Junior guard KeVaughn Allen made back to back 3-pointers to extend UF’s lead to 19-8 with 8:29 in the first half. Allen scored 10 of his 16 points in the first half.
After a Hudson four-point play put Florida up 29-11, Vanderbilt answered with a 9-3 run, cutting Florida’s lead to 32-20 on a 3-pointer by Brown with 2:43 left. But Florida closed the half with an 8-0 run. Koulechov scored five straight points on a jumper and 3-pointer to put Florida up 37-20, while Chiozza hit a 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds in the first half to put Florida up 40-20 at halftime.
Koulechov, who entered the game 5 of his last 29 from 3-point range, made 2 of 4 3-point attempts against the Commodores.
“Sometimes when you feel like personally you are in a slump it’s kind of worse, because once you know the problem it is in your head,” Koulechov said. “To me personally, it was try to go back to basics and my teammates have been great, just telling me to keep shooting it every time out.”
Florida blocked six shots in the first half and finished the game with a season-high 10 blocked shots. Junior center Kevarrius Hayes had four blocks, all the first half, and the Gators held Vanderbilt to just 28 percent from the field in the first half.
The Gators, meanwhile, shot 45.2 percent from the field in the first half while going 7 of 15 from 3-point range. Florida’s 81 points overall was its best scoring output since losing 87-84 to then No. 1 Duke on Nov. 26.
“Just starting the game with a string of stops, which is uncharted territory for us, I think gives you confidence offensively,” White said. “We were shooting it with a little bit of pep in our step and had more of a bounce offensively, got some paint touches which led to some open threes.”
Senior forward Jeff Roberson led Vanderbilt’s comeback effort, scoring 15 of his 18 points in the second half. The Commodores (5-8, 0-1) had a chance to cut UF’s lead to one point in the closing minutes, but senior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis missed a 3-point attempt with 1:12 remaining and Florida up 74-70.
“You have to be able to play well for two halves and not just one,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said.
FREE THROWS: Florida next plays Tuesday night at No. 5 Texas A&M (9 p.m., ESPN2), which lost 79-57 at Alabama in its SEC opener Saturday. … Florida director of basketball operations Kyle Church termed a late January return for senior center John Egbunu “optimistic” at a Gator Tipoff Club basketball gathering before the Vanderbilt basketball game. Church said freshman center Isaiah Stokes, who warmed up before the Vanderbilt game, is further along in his rehab from a torn ACL. … Chiozza had his string of two straight games without a turnover snapped when he was called for an over-and-back violation in the first half. Chiozza, who went 73 minutes total without a turnover during the stretch, has posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 14 of 1 over his last three games. … Koulechov has made 31 straight free throws, which is tied with Kenyan Weeks (1994-95) for the fourth longest streak in school history.
FLORIDA 81, VANDERBILT 74
Roberson 7-14 1-3 18, Lee 4-9 5-5 13, LaChance 3-5 3-3 11, Fisher-Davis 7-17 0-0 17, Toye 0-5 0-0 0, Brown 2-3 0-1 5, Baptiste 0-0 0-0 0, Austin 0-1 0-0 0, Evans 0-2 0-0 0, Willis 3-6 1-2 10. Totals 26-62 10-14 74.
Stone 2-9 2-2 6, Hayes 2-2 3-4 7, Chiozza 7-15 2-2 17, Allen 4-6 6-6 16, Koulechov 5-13 10-10 22, Bassett 0-0 0-0 0, Okauru 0-3 0-0 0, Hudson 2-5 2-4 8, Ballard 1-1 2-2 5. Totals 23-54 27-30 81.
Halftime_Florida 40-20. 3-Point Goals_Vanderbilt 12-31 (Willis 3-4, Roberson 3-7, Fisher-Davis 3-9, LaChance 2-4, Brown 1-1, Evans 0-1, Lee 0-2, Toye 0-3), Florida 8-19 (Allen 2-3, Hudson 2-4, Koulechov 2-4, Ballard 1-1, Chiozza 1-4, Stone 0-1, Okauru 0-2). Fouled Out_Toye. Rebounds_Vanderbilt 31 (Roberson 7), Florida 34 (Koulechov 8). Assists_Vanderbilt 14 (Willis 4), Florida 7 (Chiozza 3). Total Fouls_Vanderbilt 24, Florida 15. A_10,274 (10,133).