Speaking a day earlier, Florida coach Mike White wouldn’t assign any heightened importance to the Gators’ clash with Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday night.
Just the next tough challenge with many more still ahead, White said, as coaches do.
But this wasn’t just any win for the Gators as they took control late and finished off a 66-64 victory over the No. 18 Wildcats.
Florida (14-5, 6-1 SEC) reinforced its position atop the conference standings by picking up just its fourth win in Lexington, Ky., in the last 20 years, while showing the kind of poise and grit that has been a key quality for this team in its best moments so far this season.
In so doing, the Gators also snapped Kentucky’s streak of 30 straight home wins against SEC opponents and handed the Wildcats just their seventh home loss overall in coach John Calipari’s nine seasons.
“Poise and toughness,” White said of his team in his postgame interview with ESPN. “This group has really developed throughout the season collective toughness, led by [senior point guard Chris Chiozza]. He’s a pitbull, one of the toughest guys in college basketball, continues to make plays.”
Indeed, as he has seemingly done so routinely, Chiozza delivered for the Gators yet again in a pivotal moment, rattling in a high-arching 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock with 3:26 remaining to put Florida back in the lead, 58-56.
The Gators closed out a frenetic final few minutes and moments from there while fending off Kentucky’s final surge.
After Keith Stone missed the front end of a one-and-one with 19.9 seconds left and Florida leading 66-64, Kentucky got several chances to tie the game. But the Gators wouldn’t allow that.
Egor Koulechov blocked Quade Green’s drive to the rim, as the Wildcats retained possession. Jalen Hudson then blocked P.J. Washington as the ball went out of bounds off Florida again with 2.5 seconds left. That one especially drew the ire of Kentucky and its fans looking for a foul call.
Face mush. No foul. pic.twitter.com/QX9q4d8RsX
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 21, 2018
— Tony Agolini (@tonyagolini) January 21, 2018
Still, the Wildcats had one more chance. But this time they couldn’t get the ball inbounded cleanly as the Gators finished off one of their best wins of the season while not letting the size of the stage or moment overwhelm them.
Just as White had said he hoped his team would do.
“They were getting to the rim all game, so we just had to be in a stance, be ready. We knew that if they drove, we had to show our hands and make them finish over us,” Hudson said. “So we just tried to stay poised, and I think our experience, in the last 2 minutes, really helped us.”
Hudson led the Gators with 17 points, Chiozza finished with 13 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds despite battling cramping in both legs in the second half, Stone added 14 points and KeVaughn Allen scored 11.
Florida has now won eight of its last nine games, and the Gators and Auburn remain the only teams with just one SEC loss so far.
“It feels great, first time winning here,” Chiozza said in his postgame interview with ESPN. “I don’t know, words can’t really explain it. This is probably the toughest gym to play in in the country, and the way we came in here and played, battled, I’m proud of my team and the way we came out and played.”
— Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) January 21, 2018
Kentucky (14-5, 4-3) led by as many as 8 points in the first half, but Florida closed the half on a 13-3 run to grab a 33-31 halftime lead.
The Gators then got up by 8 points themselves early in the second half, but this showdown of top SEC contenders would eventually turn into a back-and-forth, tension-filled duel over the final 10 minutes.
Kentucky pulled back ahead, 53-51, on a steal and fastbreak layup by one-time Florida commit Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with 6:24 remaining.
The Gators tied it on a one-handed alley-oop dunk by Kevarrius Hayes off a baseline inbounds pass from Chiozza, but Gilgeous-Alexander answered right back with a 3 to put the hosts ahead again.
The only points over the next two minutes came on a pair of free throws from Stone to cut Kentucky’s lead to 56-55, and Chiozza’s 3 with 3:26 left returned the lead to Florida for the moment.
A layup by Washington and a layup by Hayes continued the back and forth.
The Wildcats went cold on the offensive end, though, as Florida later pushed its lead to 64-58 on two free throws from Allen with 44 seconds to go.
Kentucky was running out of time and chances until Kevin Knox banked in a 3 with 32.5 seconds remaining to make it a 64-61 game. After Hudson was fouled and made both free throws for Florida, Wenyen Gabriel connected on a 3 to make it 66-64 with 26.2 remaining.
The Gators broke through Kentucky’s press, but Stone missed the front end of the one-and-one at the line setting up that wild final sequence for Kentucky.
“They hit two just daggers when you think it’s just about done, you’ve 95 percent sealed the win,” White said. “… At that point it kind of felt like the NCAA tournament last year during the Wisconsin game where you’re worried about your guys’ mojo. And after those blows, can we step up and get one more stop? And we were fortunate enough to do so.”
After the game, Calipari was blunt in addressing Hudson’s block when asked if he thought Washington was fouled on the play.
“I’ve been asked some dumb questions in my life. … Everybody saw it,” Calipari said.
Said White of the back-to-back blocks to seal the win: “I saw my guys flying around, trying to make plays, hands on basketballs down the stretch, really active and, again, resiliency.”
Florida is building a nice resume of significant wins over ranked teams. With the victory Saturday night, the Gators have now defeated three of the teams (No. 13 Gonzaga and No. 12 Cincinnati being the others) in the top 18 of the latest AP Poll. They also won at Texas A&M when the Aggies were ranked.
This latest one, though, could prove to be a pivotal moment in Florida’s quest for an SEC title and more — for both the outcome and how it was won.
“They went on a run and we never got worried too much. We just kept our composure, continued to get good shots, move the ball, nobody was selfish and we just played hard,” Chiozza said.
White, meanwhile, acknowledged that the Gators may not be the same top-end offensive force they played as the first few games of the season, but he thinks they’ve made up for it with their considerable growth on the defensive end.
They managed to win Saturday night despite shooting 33.3 percent for the game and 20 percent from 3-point range (6 of 30).
More to the point, they managed to win in one of the toughest road environments in college basketball while delivering in the biggest moments.
When it was over, White looked equal parts thrilled at the development of his team and careful to not overstate anything— just as he had set the message leading into the game.
“Listen, winning at Rupp Arena is enormous, right? But as I just told our guys, it was one conference game, we’re 7 conference games in, we’ve got 11 conference games left,” he said. “It’s a big win. Wednesday night [against South Carolina] is going to be a big opportunity, a very, very challenging game for us. It’s a marathon.”
NOTES: Chiozza played 34 minutes despite battling the leg cramps. Here’s what he said afterward in his postgame interview with ESPN: “I normally don’t catch cramps like that. If I do, it’d be like in my calf or something, but I caught one in both legs tonight and the trainers did a good job getting me over there quick [and] getting it stopped so I could get back out there.”