As the clock hit zero in Newark and the Cincinnati band struck up its fight song, a couple Florida players turned toward them and performed a few Gator chomps.
Given the events of the previous five days, this was hardly taunting. It was more like a sigh of relief.
Thanks to big nights from Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson and some more late game heroism from Chris Chiozza, Florida’s formerly fifth ranked basketball team got back on track this weekend with a badly needed 66-60 win over 17th ranked Cincinnati at the Never Forget Classic in Newark, NJ. The win came after an embarrassing 83-66 blowout loss to unranked FSU at home and an even more embarrassing 65-59 home loss to Loyola Chicago, which for those of you who don’t know is the rough basketball equivalent of losing to Georgia Southern.
The Gators still didn’t shoot very well (42.6% from the field), and that’s a cause for concern, but they’ve evidently learned how to play strong defense, which in a way is a positive net trade off. Defense was the one big question mark for this team, and holding a ranked opponent to 60- not to mention locking down in the final minutes- is a good sign because unlike a team’s shooting performance, a team’s defensive performance isn’t likely to vacillate so greatly from night to night.
But despite that great defense, Cincinnati was still in the game until the final seconds. With 2:10 to go, Cane Broom’s two made free throws to put the Bearcats up 59-58 before Kevarrius Hayes matched those with two of his own. Gary Clark then split a pair to tie the game- and then Chris Chiozza put it away.
With a shot ever so slightly reminiscent of his heroic game winner against Wisconsin in last year’s Sweet 16, Chiozza drained a pull up midrange jumper to give the Gators the lead for keeps with 1:11 to go. On the Bearcats’ next possession, Jalen Hudson royally rejected Jacob Evans’ shot and Florida got the ball back with a chance to put it away. Keith Stone then missed a dunk, but his attempt at it was so violent that it exploded off the back rim and launched some 40 feet into the air, where Hudson was waiting for it like an outfielder camping under a fly ball. He caught it and dished it to Chiozza, who knocked down the free throws to knock Cincinnati down for the count. For good measure, Chiozza then put the cork in the bottle with a layup in the final seconds after a steal on the ensuing Cincy possession.
There’s still a lot for this team to work on, such as ball movement on offense, rebounding (Florida was owned on the boards for the third time in the last four games) and finding other ways to score when their threes aren’t falling. It may be difficult for them to do so until John Egbunu and Isaiah Stokes are back, but they’re going to need to know what to do in the NCAA Tournament if one or both of them gets in foul trouble. Those are two very good players; they’re not the be all and end all solution for any problem this team has or will have on a given day.
But the fact that the Gators won is encouraging, if only because it’s better than the alternative. And for a program that got called “the epitome of soft” by head coach Mike White, this was a good start on their quest to prove him wrong.