Senior guard Egor Koulechov helped Florida get off to a strong start Wednesday night against Mississippi State.
But it was a smothering defensive effort late that allowed the Gators to pull away for a 71-54 win over the Bulldogs before an announced crowd of 9,917 at the O’Connell Center.
Koulechov led four UF scorers in double figures with 23 points, scoring UF’s first 13 points and 17 points in the first half to help the Gators jump to a 33-28 halftime lead. The 6-foot-5 Rice graduate transfer made five of his first six shots in the field, including three in a row from 3-point range.
Asked if he was in a zone, Koulechov answered “yeah, maybe for a couple of minutes, but that second foul (in the first half) kind of slowed me down.”
“It definitely fueled us in the first half,” UF junior guard Jalen Hudson said. “He was hitting deep ones, big ones. He was doing everything.”
In the second half, Florida led just 38-35 with 15:56 remaining before putting the game away with a game-deciding 14-3 run. Senior point guard Chris Chiozza scored seven straight points during the run, on a 3-pointer and four-point play to put Florida up 45-35. Chiozza was fouled by freshman guard Nick Weatherspoon as he made a top-of-the-key 3-pointer.
“Normally when I get one, I hit a couple in a row so I knew my shot was going to go in and it did,” Chiozza said.
Florida went up 52-38 on a steal and transition 3-pointer by junior guard KeVaughn Allen with 10:48 left. From there, the Gators (12-4, 4-0 SEC) extended their lead to 23 points in the second half to cruise to their season-high sixth straight win and start 4-0 in league play for the second straight season.
“There’s definitely something about winning,” Hudson said. “Once you get a little taste of it you want some more and some more and some more. So that’s what we’re doing now. We don’t want to get complacent. We’re in conference play. Every night is going to be hard.”
Hudson added 12 points for the Gators, while Chiozza, who didn’t start due to recovering from strep throat, added 10 points and seven assists in 28 minutes off the bench to reach double figures in scoring for the eighth straight game. Redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone and junior center Kevarrius Hayes also continued their solid play inside. Stone had 10 points and eight rebounds, while Hayes had six points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
Ultimately, though, it was consistent defense that allowed the Gators to overcome a sloppy night taking care of the ball (15 turnovers). The Gators posted a season-best in points allowed this season (54). Holding the Bulldogs to 40 percent from the field and 37 percent in the second half.
“Guarding the bounce, simply guarding one-on-one, we have made a big jump in the past month,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Our guys have sat down and done a ton of it in practice and we did a good job keeping their explosive guards in front of us. The few times we didn’t keep them in front, Hayes cleaned up some of those mistakes. He’s playing at a high level.”
Quinndary Witherspoon led Mississippi State (13-3, 1-2 SEC) with 16 points, but the Bulldogs were unable to knock down open looks from the perimeter, going 5 of 16 from 3-point range. Florida went 9 of 23 from 3-point range and is starting to shoot the ball better at home after shooting just 25 percent from 3-point range (37-148) in its prior six games at the O’Dome.
“We struggled offensively, we struggled to score,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. “They turned up their defensive intensity even better in the second half and it was hard for us to find anything good to get good shots for our team.”
FREE THROWS: Florida freshman guard Deaundrae Ballard sat out the game due a stomach flu that nearly sidelined him in UF’s prior game against Missouri. With Ballard and Chiozza out during practice this week, White said the Gators were forced to play 4-on-4 to get ready for Mississippi State, “We need to do a better job washing our hands,” White said of UF’s illness outbreak. Hudson was dealing with the flu over Christmas break but is getting closer to 100 percent. … Mississippi State junior guard Xavian Stapleton did not make the trip with the Bulldogs and was suspended for the game after being arrested Monday for a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace. … With seven assists on Wednesday night, Chiozza (457 assists) passed Nick Calathes (452) for fifth on UF’s all-time assist list, “I didn’t even know that,” Chiozza said. “I’m just going to go out there and keep playing how I play every game. I’m not really worried about it. It’s a great accomplishment, something that I’m proud of.” … Redshirt freshman forward Dontay Bassett scored on a putback basket late in the second half, the first points for the 6-foot-9 forward since scoring 2 points Nov. 23 against Stanford.
|FLORIDA 71, MISSISSIPPI ST. 54|
|MISSISSIPPI ST. (13-3)|
Holman 3-4 1-1 7, Ado 6-8 0-0 12, Carter 1-6 0-0 2, Q.Weatherspoon 6-13 0-0 16, N.Weatherspoon 2-9 3-4 7, Feazell 0-1 0-0 0, Datcher 1-2 0-0 2, Wright 2-6 1-2 5, Peters 1-6 0-0 3. Totals 22-55 5-7 54.
Stone 4-9 1-1 10, Hayes 2-3 2-3 6, Koulechov 9-13 1-2 23, Hudson 3-13 5-5 12, Allen 1-3 0-0 3, Bassett 1-3 0-0 2, Gak 1-2 0-0 2, Chiozza 3-10 2-3 10, Okauru 1-2 1-2 3. Totals 25-58 12-16 71.
Halftime_Florida 33-28. 3-Point Goals_Mississippi St. 5-16 (Q.Weatherspoon 4-8, Peters 1-3, Wright 0-1, Carter 0-2, N.Weatherspoon 0-2), Florida 9-23 (Koulechov 4-5, Chiozza 2-5, Allen 1-2, Stone 1-4, Hudson 1-7). Fouled Out_Holman. Rebounds_Mississippi St. 30 (Ado 10), Florida 32 (Stone, Koulechov 8). Assists_Mississippi St. 9 (Q.Weatherspoon, N.Weatherspoon 3), Florida 13 (Chiozza 7). Total Fouls_Mississippi St. 17, Florida 11.