Florida center Kevarrius Hayes patrolled the paint midway through the second half, eyeing the ball as it moved around the perimeter. When Mississippi State guard Eli Wright drove toward the basket and attempted a layup, Hayes slapped it away, generating cheers from fans at the O’Connell Center.
One possession later, Hayes rejected another Bulldogs shot attempt, this time smacking a jumper out of mid-air from guard Nick Weatherspoon.
Three games into conference play, the Florida men’s basketball team’s identity is beginning …
Florida’s defense, along with a huge first half from guard Egor Koulechov, kept the team’s record perfect in SEC play on Wednesday night with a 71–54 blowout of Mississippi State.
The contest marked UF’s sixth consecutive win dating back to Dec. 20, and was its eighth straight victory over the Bulldogs since 2011.
“Still got a long way to go,” guard Jalen Hudson said. “I feel like (the game) did show a lot of potential for us defensively, though.”
Florida (12-4, 4-0 SEC) got off to a slow start on offense, relying heavily on Koulechov throughout the first half. The graduate transfer was the only player to score for UF in the first eight minutes of the contest, dropping 13 consecutive points before before center Gorjok Gak converted a layup attempt.
Overall, Koulechov scored 17 first-half points and finished with 23 for the game.
“He got off to a really great start,” coach Mike White said. “When its going for him, probably as much as anyone on the team, it gives us confidence.”
As the first half progressed, the rest of Florida’s players got involved in the offense.
After missing his first five shots from the field, Hudson — who started in place of an ill Chris Chiozza — scored his first two points from the free-throw line with 9:57 left in the frame and made a three-pointer several minutes later.
UF’s lead grew to as much as 10 following a free throw from forward Keith Stone, but a pair of layups from brothers Nick and Quinndary Weatherspoon later trimmed the lead down to six. The Gators led by just five heading into halftime, 33-28.
In the second half, the Bulldogs (13-3, 1-2 SEC) cut their deficit down to three with 15:56 remaining after forward Abdul Ado dunked down the middle of the lane.
Chiozza – who came off the bench – halted Mississippi State’s run with back-to-back three-pointers, including a four-point play.
The pair of jumpers brought the Gators lead back to double digits, 45-35, with 15:04 left in the contest.
Chiozza finished the night with 10 points and also registered seven assists, climbing to fifth in the Gators’ all-time assist list.
With 10:51 remaining, guard KeVaughn Allen stole the ball away from Mississippi State and calmly jogged down the court before pulling up for a three-pointer. The shot was Allen’s first of the night, and gave Florida its biggest lead at 14.
The lead proved too much for the Bulldogs, who never brought themselves within more than 12 after that point.
White praised his team’s defensive activity after contest on a night that saw UF hold its opponent to a season-low 54 points.
“It’s been hit and miss at times,” White said, “but we’re starting to consistently be a little scrappier.”
Hayes was a catalyst in the Gators strong play, recording three blocks in a span of less than two and a half minutes midway through the second half.
“It’s great that I can clean up the (paint) like that,” Hayes said. “It feels good knowing someone has your back, and I feel like I do a good job playing that role for my teammates.”