GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Asked about Egor Koulechov’s contributions in SEC play so far, Florida basketball coach Mike White joked that it’s been kind of a let-down after seeing him score 34 points in the season opener.
But no, White admitted, the graduate transfer from Rice has certainly given the Gators all they could have expected if not more.
Whatever questions there were about how the well-traveled 6-foot-5 guard would adapt to the SEC, well, they’ve been thoroughly answered. Again and again and again.
Koulechov scored the Gators’ first 13 points Wednesday night and finished with a game-high 23 while masking Florida’s overall shooting struggles in a 71-54 win over Mississippi State.
He connected on 9 of 13 shots from the field (4 of 5 from 3-point range) and added 8 rebounds for his fifth 20-point performance of the season. More to the point, he is now averaging 19.8 points through his first four SEC games while helping the Gators (12-4, 4-0) remain unbeaten in the conference.
“It’s nice to see him playing with confidence. When it’s going for him, probably as much as anyone on our team, it gives us confidence because he’s one of this team’s leaders,” White said.
Florida turned in a strong defensive performance against Mississippi State (13-3, 1-2), allowing a season low for points, and got some big shots from other players along the way to finishing off its season-best sixth straight win.
But it was Koulechov who set the tone Wednesday night.
Mississippi State led 7-2 early when Koulechov reeled off the next 8 points with a mid-range jumper and a pair of 3s on consecutive possessions. After the Bulldogs hit a couple shots to pull back ahead 12-10, Koulechov drained another 3 to give Florida a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
This wasn’t the Gators’ sharpest offensive performance of late, but they nonetheless remained in control the rest of the way with minimal resistance.
Mississippi State cut the Florida lead to 38-35 early in the second half, but point guard Chris Chiozza responded with back-to-back 3-pointers, drawing a foul on the second for a four-point play to quickly restore the double-digit advantage at 45-35.
The Bulldogs never mounted a serious threat again.
“He just makes big plays for this team,” White said of Chiozza. “He’s playing with a really high level of confidence on both ends. It’s the epitome of leading by example.”
Chiozza, who was a game-day decision while dealing with strep throat, finished with 10 points and 7 assists on 3-of-10 shooting. Jalen Hudson added 12 points on 3-of-13 shooting, and preseason All-SEC selection KeVaughn Allen continued to struggle with just 3 points (albeit a timely 3-pointer in the second half off his own steal to push the lead to 52-38).
Emerging forward Keith Stone was good again for Florida with 10 points and 8 rebounds, and forward Kevarrius Hayes again delivered all-around contributions with 6 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals.
But take away Koulechov’s high-percentage shooting performance and it wasn’t a great offensive game overall from the Gators.
He added another late flourish with a 3-pointer and fastbreak dunk (off a Chiozza steal and assist) on back-to-back possessions to push the lead to 57-40 with a little more than 7 minutes left to play, capping his third-best scoring performance in a Florida uniform.
That Koulechov has been an asset for the Gators is no surprise. After starting his collegiate career at Arizona State, he transferred to Rice and averaged 16.7 and 18.2 points per game over the last two seasons, earning first-team All-Conference USA honors last year. He created further buzz in the preseason as word leaked out about him connecting on 44 straight 3-pointers in a practice setting, and he excelled at the World University Games while playing for Israel.
But it was natural to wonder how all of that would transfer to a higher level of competition in the SEC.
“I had never seen him play before he got here so I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” Chiozza said. “We had Canyon [Barry] the same way last year so I kind of expected him to be that kind of player. He came in and he’s done more than I thought he would do. I’m glad we got him.”
Said White: “At the end of the summer I didn’t anticipate him being our leading scorer, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if he led us in scoring different games, of course. … After I watched Egor, though, in the event he played in this summer, the international event, and we watched him on film in that setting, we got even more excited because he looked really good. Other than that slump there after the first 6-8 games, he’s been terrific and he’s made a big jump defensively for us.”
Overall, Koulechov ranks second on the team in scoring at 15.5 points per game and after the aforementioned slump he’s made 13 of his last 20 3s.
As for what he feels he’s proven so far, well, he’d just as soon let the numbers speak for him.
“I really don’t think about it,” he said Wednesday night, in his usual soft-spoken manor. “I take what the defense gives me. Coaches put me in those positions. I always praise my teammates because it’s not about one person. It’s about the whole team.”
NOTES: Chiozza ended up playing 28 minutes after not practicing the last two days due to the strep throat.
“I was getting tired a little bit quicker than normal. I was having a little trouble breathing, but other than that I felt fine. Once I got out there running I felt like I was back to normal,” he said.
Said White: “I didn’t know that he’d give us this many minutes. It was a great effort. … To give it every ounce of energy you got when your teammates know you’re feeling [sick] and you’re playing well, it gives you just a big added boost to the rest of your team.”
Illness has been going around the roster as Hudson played through a virus after the holiday break, and freshman guard Deaundrae Ballard was sick and did not play Wednesday night.
Mississippi State was hindered with 6-foot-10 standout Aric Holman playing only 16 minutes before fouling out. … The Bulldogs also got to the free throw line a season-low 7 times. … Chiozza passed Nick Calathes for fifth in program history in assists with 457. … Koulechov surpassed 1,500 career points in his college career.
Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said he got a chance to talk to Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin on Wednesday night. Stricklin hired Howland at MSU.
“I did say hi to Scott. You guys are very blessed, very fortunate to have Scott as your leader of this athletic department,” Howland said. “There’s not a classier person I’ve met in my 35 years in Division I athletics. I really think the world of him and his family.”