LEXINGTON, Ky. — There were plenty of reasons for Florida to celebrate following its dramatic 66-64 win at No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday night.
Florida won for just the fourth time at Rupp Arena since 1998, and if history is any indicator, it could be a sign of good things to come. The last three Florida teams to win at Rupp (2006, 2007 and 2014) all at least made the Final Four, with the ’06 and ’07 teams winning back-to-back national titles.
Florida (14-5, 6-1 SEC) remained a half game ahead of Auburn in the SEC standings and will probably return to the Top 25 this week. Senior 6-foot-11, 265-pound center John Egbunu is progressing in his rehab from a torn ACL and could be back within two or three weeks, which would give the Gators much-needed size and physicality inside.
But Florida coach Mike White doesn’t want the Gators to fall into the same trap they did after returning from the PK80 Tournament in Portland. After beating Gonzaga in double overtime and taking then-No. 1 Duke to the wire in the tournament finals, the Gators lost four of their next five games in December.
“Winning at Rupp Arena is enormous, right, but as a I told my guys, we are seven conference games in,” White said. “We have 11 conference games left …
“It’s a marathon. If we want to continue to progress and develop, we’ve got to approach it as such.”
Still, there was plenty to like about how Florida battled on the defensive end of the floor in holding the talented Wildcats to 64 points and 40.6-percent shooting from the floor. The Gators found a way to win when their own shots weren’t falling, similar to how they beat Cincinnati (66-60) in December at the Never Forget Classic in Newark, N.J.
“We’re showing in some games when we don’t hit shots, we do a good job,” Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza said. “You know, being tough and getting to a lot of loose balls. You just play hard and find out ways to win.”
Florida won despite shooting 33 percent from floor (22-66) and 20 percent from 3-point range (6-30).
“Hopefully it continues to promote the buy-in necessary to be more consistent in those areas, defending and on the glass,” White said.
Chiozza was terrific in keeping the Gators steady through the shooting woes, posting an assist to turnover ratio of 8 to 1 despite dealing with leg cramps in the second half.
“I’m really glad he is my point guard,” White said.
Ultimately, the game came down to a final defensive stand in which Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson both came up with big blocked shots. Koulechov and Hudson were considered defensive liabilities earlier this season, but both players have progressed on both ends of the floor.
“They were getting to the rim all game so we had to be in a stance and be ready,” Hudson said. “We had to make sure that they drove into our hands and make them finish over us. So we just had to stay poised.”
Hudson said he felt like Florida’s experience played a role in the win against Kentucky’s freshman-laden team of five star recruits.
“They made some critical mistakes at the end,” Hudson said. “I don’t know if it was lack of experience or just not playing it correctly. I feel like we were so much more poised than they were.”
The Gators will begin a stretch of playing four of their next five games at home on Wednesday at the O’Connell Center against South Carolina. Florida will be looking to avenge its Elite Eight loss against the Gamecocks last March.
“Wednesday night is going to be another big opportunity,” White said. “Very, very challenging game for us.”
FREE THROWS: Florida snapped Kentucky’s 30-game home win streak against SEC opponents. … Florida also is the first SEC team to post two wins at Rupp against current Kentucky coach John Calipari. Texas A&M and Arkansas are the only other schools to beat Calipari at Rupp. … Florida improved to 4-1 on the season against ranked teams. White improved to 8-12 in his UF tenure against ranked teams and is 7-2 in his last nine games against ranked opponents. White also improved to 11-13 in his UF tenure in games decided by 5 points or less. … Florida improved to 7-2 all-time on CollegeGameDay and 7-1 on GameDay against Kentucky. … With one block against Kentucky, junior center Kevarrius Hayes is now tied with Udonis Haslem for eighth on UF’s all-time blocked shot list (120). … With 11 points against Kentucky, KeVaughn Allen has passed Al Horford (1,123 points) and Joakim Noah (1,133 points) and now sits 41st on UF’s all-time scoring list with 1,137 points.
Who: South Carolina (12-7, 3-4 SEC) vs. Florida (14-5, 6-1)
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: O’Connell Center
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850