Fans held their breath. They had been waiting almost 14 minutes for Chris Chiozza to set the UF career assists record against rival Kentucky on Senior Day in the O’Connell Center.
Then it happened. Chiozza crossed Kentucky guard Quade Green at the top of the key. The senior from Memphis, Tennessee, drew the attention of Wildcats forward Nick Richards as he blew past Green, freeing up his teammate, forward Keith Stone, on the left wing. He flicked the ball over his shoulder to Stone, who put up a three, totally unbothered with no defender in sight and knocked it down.
The O’Connell Center roared as fans moved to their feet, clapping and cheering and hollering over the history they had just witnessed, and a timeout was called. Chiozza was honored with a highlight video on the jumbotron after dishing out his 548th career assist, moving past Erving Walker (2008-12) for most in Gators basketball history.
Chiozza did a little bit everything, finishing with nine points, three boards and four assists UF’s 80-67 Senior Day win over No. 23 Kentucky (21-10, 10-8 SEC) on Saturday afternoon.
“I was looking up at the screen and couldn’t believe how fast four years had gone by,” Chiozza said.
He was joined by injured center John Egbunu and graduate transfer Egor Koulechov in being honored before tip off.
Florida (20-11, 11-7 SEC) and Kentucky traded blows early. Neither team led by more than two possessions until Gators center Gorjok Gak scored a layup with 6:52 remaining in the first half to put the Gators up by seven. Gak was fouled on the basket, and after sinking the ensuing free throw Florida led 25-17.
The Gators continued to pull away from there. Stone scored five straight for the Florida – a three off of Chiozza’s record-breaking pass with 6:06 remaining and a reverse layup at the 5:20 mark – to put Florida up 30-19.
Junior guards Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen got in on the scoring as well. Hudson hit a three with 3:12 in the half to extend the Gators’ lead to 38-24. Allen made two shots from long range – a contested three with a little under four minutes to go and a buzzer-beater as time expired.
The Gators continued to roll through the second half, stretching a 15-point lead to 23 in the first four minutes. Koulechov scored eight points during that span, finishing with 16 on 5-of-7 shooting.
The Wildcats started to mount a comeback, whittling away at the 23-point deficit until guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a layup with about seven minutes left to pull within nine. Florida responded on the next possession with a Hudson three to increase its lead to 12.
The Gators led by double digits the rest of the way.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the year,” Gators coach Mike White said.
Hudson led all players with 22 points, going 3 of 6 from beyond the arc. Allen had nine points, and led the team in rebounding and assists, recording seven apiece.
“I think (Hudson’s) been very aggressive,” White said. “He’s not overthinking quite as much. I think this is the first time all year when him and KeVaughn both are playing with that mentality.”
Up next for Florida is the SEC Tournament, which runs from March 7-11 in St. Louis, Missouri. UF will receive a double-bye as the third seed in the conference and will return to the court for the SEC quarterfinals on Friday.
“We’ve got to get rested,” White said. “We’ve got a little window here before the conference tournament to make a couple strides in a couple areas – if we approach it the right way.”