DALLAS — Throughout this second-round NCAA Tournament showdown Saturday night, both Florida and Texas Tech answered each other’s momentum surges time and again.
As the Gators and Red Raiders traded the lead back and forth, the overwhelmingly-pro-Texas Tech crowd took over the arena for stretches and quieted during others. What looked to be an even matchup on paper played out that way to the very end.
Keenan Evans’ 3-pointer with 2:32 left and his alley-oop lob to Zhaire Smith with 29 seconds on the clock swung the lead back to Texas Tech and, finally, the Gators had no answer. Or not enough of one.
They got a Chris Chiozza layup and a quick steal, but final 3-pointers from Egor Koulechov and KeVaughn Allen clanked off the rim in the last 6 seconds as Texas Tech closed out a 69-66 win inside American Airlines Center.
The No. 3-seeded Red Raiders (26-9) advance to the Sweet 16 while the No. 6 Gators (21-13) go home.
“It’s tough to go out that way,” said Chiozza, one of two Florida seniors. “I don’t think it’s hit me fully yet. As soon as the buzzer sounded, I felt it a little bit, but so far I don’t think it’s hit me fully that my college career is over.”
Gators coach Mike White was in a similar state of mind as he stood outside the locker room after his postgame news conference.
“The players said it, I don’t mean to be cliche and copy my guys’ lines to the media, but it hasn’t fully sunk in. I’m so down for our guys, especially our seniors. But I know, because I’ve been here before of course, that tomorrow when I wake up I’ll be even more down. I will.”
Evans played his usual starring role for Texas Tech with 22 points and consistently delivered in the game’s biggest moments.
Florida was up 50-49 when Evans made a layup to swing the lead, Smith followed with a thunderous put-back dunk, Evans spun through the lane and tossed in a finger-roll layup and then made another layup while drawing a foul and hitting the free throw. Those 9 straight points gave the Red Raiders a 58-50 lead.
Florida rallied back once more, though, tying the game at 64 after a layup and free throw from Jalen Hudson and a layup from Koulechov with 3:03 remaining.
Then Evans struck again, answering immediately with a 3-pointer to put Texas Tech back in control.
Koulechov airballed a 3 at the end of the shot clock with 48.3 seconds left, and Smith threw down that alley-oop dunk to make it a 69-64 game with 29.4 seconds left.
Chiozza raced full court for a layup with 25.8 second left and Florida trapped Evans after the inbounds pass, ultimately resulting in a Hudson steal that created one more chance to tie. But Koulechov and Allen missed their 3s in the final seconds to end it.
“We got the turnover, Chris saw me in the corner, I kind of [bobbled] it when I caught it and then the guy just kind of fell or tripped or something — it threw me off a little bit. I mean, it was a good look,” Koulechov said. “I had a good look early too with the shot clock winding down. I just didn’t come through for my team today. Early in the season we hit a couple big ones. Today it just didn’t bounce our way.”
Keith Stone grabbed the offensive rebound and got it to Allen in the corner for one more chance.
“It felt good. It just didn’t go in,” Allen said. “It just felt good the whole way.”
Hudson led Florida with 23 points while Koulechov finished with 12 and Chiozza had 11 while playing only 27 minutes due to foul trouble. He picked up his fourth foul with 13:00 left in the second half and sat for more than 5 minutes.
Nonetheless, the Gators had every chance to force overtime and extend this ever unpredictable, up-and-down season.
Looking back on that final sequence, White said he didn’t want to call a timeout after the steal to allow Texas Tech to set its defense.
“If you call one, I don’t know that we would have gotten those same looks against a team that’s set,” he said. “They were scrambling a little bit and Chris Chiozza had the ball in his hands, and he made the right play. He made the right play. It just didn’t go down for us. But two guys that I have faith in and still do moving forward. Egor will have a great professional career, as will Chris, and KeVaughn’s hit a ton in his career and he’ll hit a bunch more next year.”
The Florida locker room was as quiet as one would expect afterward. Players kept to themselves while processing the end of this season, and the end of two successful collegiate careers for Chiozza, Florida’s all-time assists leader, and Koulechov, a the graduate transfer who made the most of his one season with the Gators.
“I feel it for those guys. I definitely do,” Hudson said. “It’s their last time ever putting on this jersey. It was pretty emotional. I feel for them. I just wanted to give my all for them, and it hurts right now. There’s not too much you can say. …
“It was just run after run. Even at the end we had a chance to tie it, and it just wasn’t how God wrote it to be.”