Florida coach Mike White said he feels like the Gators are playing their best basketball of the season right now.
The key, with critical games in March ahead, is to sustain it.
“We’ve got to handle success much better than we have at other times during this basketball season,” White said.
The Gators closed their regular season on another high note Saturday, knocking off No. 23 Kentucky 80-67 before a frenzied 10,558 at the O’Connell Center. Florida posted its first regular-season sweep over the Wildcats since 2014 and just its sixth regular-season sweep against UK in school history.
“We’ve got to stay locked in,” said Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson, who led four UF scorers in double figures with 22 points. “Whatever we’re doing right now, we’ve got to continue to do it. We’re in a groove right now. I think this is the best basketball we’ve played all year.”
Florida won its third consecutive game with balance on offense and hustle on defense. Along with Hudson’s output, senior guard Egor Koulechov added 16 points, redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone had 10 points and junior guard KeVaughn Allen posted perhaps his best all-around floor game at UF with 11 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals.
Senior point guard Chris Chiozza capped an emotional Senior Day with 9 points, 4 assists and 1 steal, becoming UF’s all-time leader in assists with 551. Chiozza, tied with Erving Walker going into the game, broke the record feeding Stone on a 3-pointer with 6:06 left in the first half.
Florida (20-11, 11-7 SEC) knocked off Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky in eight days to close the regular season. The Gators secured the third seed and a double bye in the SEC Tournament and will open play Friday at 9:30 p.m. in St. Louis.
“This is as confident as we’ve been all season,” Chiozza said.
The Gators scored 16 points off 11 Kentucky turnovers while holding the Wildcats to 41.4-percent shooting from the floor. Florida scored 14 points off turnovers in the first half and went 6 of 13 from 3-point range in the first half to race to a 48-33 halftime lead, scoring its most points in the first half since putting up 48 against Arkansas in the first half Jan. 17.
“We got our hands on a few basketballs early and, of course, when we get out in transition, it continues to be a big strength for us,” White said.
Hudson, coming off a 27-point game earlier in the week against Alabama, scored 17 of his 22 points in the first half.
“I’m not sure if this is the best I’ve ever played, but I’m just trying to be aggressive,” Hudson said. “My teammates keep finding me.”
Florida extended its lead to as many as 23 points in the second half, going up 62-39 on a Koulechov 3-pointer with 16:04 left in the second half, before going on a rut. After a jumper by freshman Mike Okauru put Florida up 64-44, the Gators went the next 8:21 without a field goal during a 12-1 Kentucky run that was sparked when the Wildcats switched to a zone defense.
“They went into that zone and they were really long and that made it tougher on us,” Koulechov said.
But after Kentucky freshman point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander cut UF’s lead to 65-56 with a driving basket, the Gators finally ended their drought with a big shot, a 3-pointer by Hudson with 6:19 left that hit both the rim and backboard before bouncing in to put UF back up 68-56.
“I think that hit every part of the rim,” Hudson said. “It was supposed to go in.”
From there, Florida continued to pad its lead, going up 75-57 on a 3-pointer by Allen with 4:18 left. In the final minute, Chiozza hit a pair of free throws to put Florida up 80-65, which allowed both Chiozza and Koulechov to check out of the game to a raucous ovation.
Kentucky (21-10, 10-8 SEC) had its four-game win streak snapped. Gilgeous-Alexander led four UK scorers in double figures with 17 points. Kentucky coach John Calipari said the Wildcats were done in by a lack of ball movement. While Florida posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 15 to 10, the Wildcats had just 6 assists to 13 turnovers.
“We didn’t pass today,” Calipari said. “I don’t have any idea why we didn’t pass the ball to each other. If you have two guys on you, that means throw it to somebody. We reverted. This is how we played a month ago.”
With the win over Kentucky, Florida will be the third-seeded team in the SEC tournament and will await the winner of Ole Miss/South Carolina vs. Arkansas at about 9:30 p.m. Friday in St. Louis.
|FLORIDA 80, No. 23 KENTUCKY 67|
Knox 3-10 5-7 12, Gabriel 1-4 0-0 3, Richards 1-2 0-2 2, Gilgeous-Alexander 7-14 2-4 17, Diallo 0-7 1-2 1, Vanderbilt 2-4 2-2 6, Killeya-Jones 1-1 0-0 2, Washington 5-9 3-5 13, Green 4-7 0-0 11. Totals 24-58 13-22 67.
Hayes 1-2 0-2 2, Koulechov 5-7 4-6 16, Hudson 8-16 3-3 22, Chiozza 2-7 5-6 9, Allen 4-9 0-0 11, Stone 4-10 0-0 10, Gak 2-3 2-3 6, Okauru 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 28-57 14-20 80.
Halftime_Florida 48-33. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 6-16 (Green 3-3, Gilgeous-Alexander 1-2, Gabriel 1-3, Knox 1-5, Diallo 0-3), Florida 10-25 (Hudson 3-7, Allen 3-7, Koulechov 2-3, Stone 2-4, Chiozza 0-4). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Kentucky 32 (Washington 7), Florida 31 (Allen 7). Assists_Kentucky 6 (Gilgeous-Alexander 4), Florida 15 (Allen 7). Total Fouls_Kentucky 17, Florida 20.