With the Gators leading by four points with 43 seconds left in the game, Florida guard Chris Chiozza drove past Vanderbilt forward Clevon Brown from the top of the three-point line and converted a contested layup to seal the victory for UF.
Strong performances from the Gators’ backcourt played a large role in the team’s 81-74 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday afternoon at the O’Connell Center to open SEC play.
Guard Egor Koulechov finished with a game-high 22 points on 5-of-13 shooting from the field and 10-of-10 shooting from the free-throw line. Chiozza and guard KeVaughn Allen also scored 17 and 16 points, respectively, bolstering a Florida scoring effort that led the Commodores from the opening whistle.
UF (9-4, 1-0 SEC) began the game on a 9-0 run through the opening six minutes of play following jumpers from Koulechov and Allen.
Vanderbilt (5-8, 0-1 SEC) responded with five consecutive points behind baskets from Brown and guard Saben Lee, but the four-point deficit was the closest the Commodores came to catching UF in the first half.
Florida continued to build its lead, going on three separate 8-0 runs during the opening frame. Led by Allen, who recorded 10 points and two three-pointers in the half, the Gators entered the intermission leading 40-20.
Vanderbilt struggled to shoot the ball at the beginning of the contest, knocking down just 28 percent of its attempts from the floor in the opening 20 minutes of action.
Mental mistakes and an overwhelming Gators defense also limited the Commodores’ first-half offensive production.
Vanderbilt turned the ball over seven times, only two of which were off Florida steals, and was outworked in the paint, getting outrebounded 22-13 and having six of its shots blocked.
“It was probably our best 20 minutes,” UF coach Mike White said. “It was the best half we played this year.”
Despite struggling to start the afternoon, Vanderbilt found its offensive stride midway through the game, shooting 51.4 percent from the field in the second half.
While Florida never trailed, the 20-point lead it held slowly started to dwindle. After trading baskets in the first two minutes of the frame, Vanderbilt went on a 12-3 run behind a three-pointer from forward Jeff Roberson and back-to-back layups from Lee and guard Matthew Fischer-Davis to cut its deficit to single digits.
However, the Gators always had an answer for the Commodores’ scoring runs. Koulechov and forward Keith Stone made a pair of baskets to extend the lead back to 13 with 13:55 left in the contest.
When the Commodores cut the deficit down to seven off five straight points from guard Riley LaChance, Florida responded with four points from two Koulechov free throws and a Chiozza layup at the 10-minute mark.
“We want the ball in his hands down the stretch,” White said about Chiozza.
With three minutes remaining, Roberson hit another three-pointer to cut UF’s lead down to seven. On the next offensive possession, the Commodores collected two offensive rebounds before a three-pointer from LaChance made it a four-point game.
But Chiozza’s layup at the end of the contest stopped any chance of Vanderbilt completing the comeback, and Florida made five free throws to cap off the outing.
Koulechov said after the win that the start of SEC play allows the Gators to put their previous struggles during non-conference action behind them.
“Everything that happened before, we just got to forget about it,” he said. “Conference play is where it’s at. It’s good for us to get this first win.”
The outing also marked White’s first victory over Vanderbilt as Florida’s coach after going 0-5 against the Commodores during his first two seasons in Gainesville. He has now defeated every team in the SEC.
“I had forgotten we hadn’t beaten Vandy yet,” White said with a smile. “It feels good.”
A video posted to FloridaGators.com contributed to this report.