With the race to earning a top SEC seed in the final stretch, conference foes Florida and Alabama face off tonight at 7 in Tuscaloosa.
The Crimson Tide beat UF 68-50 at the O’Connell Center on Feb. 3, and tonight’s rematch features a number of storylines, starting with a matchup between Gators guard Chris Chiozza — the SEC’s leader in assists per game — and Alabama guard Collin Sexton, whose 18.2 points per game ranks second in the league.
After his team claimed the opening tip-off, Auburn guard Mustapha Heron started driving toward the basket from the right side before stopping …
Chiozza vs. Sexton
Alabama’s freshman guard got the better of Chiozza when the teams first met, leading the Crimson Tide (17-12, 8-8 SEC) past Florida in UF’s most lopsided defeat of the season. Chiozza finished with four points, four assists and two rebounds for Florida (18-11, 9-7 SEC) in the contest, well below his season averages of 11.3 points per game, 6.2 assists per game and 4.4 rebounds per game.
He struggled from the floor, missing all three shots from beyond the arc and finished 2-of-9 overall. Sexton, a projected top-10 NBA draft pick, had his way with the Gators defense, shooting 7-of-15 on the night while sinking 2-of-5 three-point attempts. Sexton posted 17 points, tied his season-high with six assists and added a season-best eight rebounds.
“He’s a tough player,” Florida coach Mike White said of Sexton. “Knowing that he can drive and shoot at the same time, it’s gonna be pretty hard to contain him.”
Battle of the bigs
UF freshman forwards Chase Johnson (concussion) and Isaiah Stokes (torn ACL), as well as senior center John Egbunu (torn ACL), have missed a combined 83 games during the 2017-18 season. While all three are in the late stages of their recovery, White has ruled out Johnson and Stokes for the last two games of the regular season.
Egbunu continues to rehab but has experienced a recent setback with swelling in his knee. The 6-foot-11 senior will likely join Johnson and Stokes on the bench for the near future.
These injuries have forced sophomore forward Keith Stone and junior center Kevarrius Hayes into larger roles this season.
Both Stone and Hayes struggled in UF’s loss to Alabama earlier this month. Hayes was held scoreless and spent just 17 minutes on the floor. Stone put up 12 points and five rebounds but scored no points on 0-of-3 shooting in the second half. In contrast, Crimson Tide forwards Donta Hall and Braxton Key combined for 27 points and 16 rebounds, helping the Tide outscore the Gators by 20 points in the paint.
“(Hall’s) such a high field-goal percentage guy,” White said. “His offensive ratings are off the charts. (Alabama’s) a very good interior passing team.”
Florida held a 33-27 lead over the Tide at halftime but struggled to get anything going after the break. They were outscored 41-17 by Alabama in the final 20 minutes, going 2-for-13 from three-point range and missing 24-of-31 shots overall. Hall (eight points on 4-of-4 shooting) and Key (10 points on 4-of-5 from the field) accounted for nearly half of the Tide’s second-half scoring.
Prior to Saturday’s 72-66 win over then-No. 12 Auburn, UF had gone 2-4 in the month of February. The Gators were outscored after halftime in three of those four losses.
“It was just a very poor half for us,” White said. “We’re going to have to be a lot better, of course.”