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.