December non-conference games carry only so much importance in the big picture of a college basketball season. Usually, that is.
But this Florida team really needed a positive Saturday night after three straight losses and an especially tough start to the week.
The Gators got it with a tightly-contested, down-to-the-wire 66-60 win over No. 17 Cincinnati in Newark, N.J., as part of the Never Forget Tribute Classic.
The teams combined for 10 lead changes and 13 ties in the back-and-forth duel as Florida didn’t take the lead for good until just more than a minute remained.
Egor Koulechov led the Gators (6-3) with 21 points and 7 rebounds, Jalen Hudson added 17 points and point guard Chris Chiozza scored 15 points with 6 assists.
The Gators came into the week ranked No. 5 in the country having narrowly toppled top-ranked Duke in their only loss of the season. Then came lopsided home losses to a pair of unranked opponents, Florida State (83-66) and Loyola-Chicago (65-59).
The three straight losses amounted to a longer slide than Florida endured at any point last season on its run to the Elite 8.
Coach Mike White had challenged the toughness of his team as the season reached its first pivotal moment, but the Gators showed some tenacity down the stretch Saturday evening against Cincinnati (7-2).
After leading by as many as 8 points early in the second half, Florida was locked in a tied ballgame at 55-55 with just less than 4 minutes remaining when the tension started to mount.
Chiozza drove into the lane and dished to Jalen Hudson for a wide-open corner 3-pointer for a 58-55 Gators lead. Kyle Washington and Cane Broome scored the next four points to give Cincinnati a 59-58 lead.
Kevarrius Hayes calmly knocked down two free throws after missing a big one a minute earlier, giving the Gators a 60-59 lead before Gary Clark tied it again for the Bearcats by hitting one of two at the line.
Chiozza finally put Florida back on top for good with a floater for a 62-60 lead with 1:12 to play.
Hudson was credited with a block on the other end as Cincinnati came up empty. After an extended replay break, Florida’s Keith Stone missed a thunderous dunk attempt, but the rebound caromed back to Chiozza and the Bearcats had no choice but to foul him with 20.1 seconds on the clock.
Chiozza hit both free throws to push the lead to 64-60, and Cincinnati turned the ball over on its final two possession as Chiozza scored again and the Gators eventually let the clock tick away on a much-needed win.
The Bearcats ended up going without a made field goal over the final 3:22 of the game and their 21 turnovers on the night played a huge factor while leading to 27 Florida points.
The defense was better and the shooting for the Gators marginally improved.
After going 8 of 44 from 3-point range (18.2 percent) through the last two games, Florida knocked down 6 of 15 from beyond the arc Saturday night and shot 42.6 percent overall. Not a great percentage, but enough of the Gators’ key players delivered.
Koulechov, who had shot 7-26 overall and 1-10 from 3 the past two games, made 8 of 15 shots (1-3 from 3) in the win. Hudson, who was 8-22 overall and 2-11 from 3 in those last two losses, made 6 of 8 shots and 3 of 5 from 3 Saturday night. Chiozza, meanwhile, shot an efficient 6 of 10 from the field.
That helped cover up for a rough night for guard KeVaughn Allen, who finished 1 of 5 for 2 points in 26 minutes.
The Gators still have their flaws and plenty of room for growth, but they at least took the first step Saturday night.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, has lost two straight after a 7-0 start, following its defeat to Xavier last Saturday.