Florida holds on late, takes down Vanderbilt in 1st SEC game of the season
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — It’s been a long time, maybe even a decade, since Florida had this much confidence from the free-throw line.
It came in handy in the Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt.
Egor Koulechov scored 22 points, Chris Chiozza added 17 and the Gators opened conference play with a 81-74 victory against the Commodores on Saturday.
Florida (9-4) led the entire game and ended a five-game losing streak in the series. The key was making 27 of 30 free throws.
“I thought we made some good decisions, our best free-throw shooters, in being aggressive,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Mature decisions.”
It was White’s first victory against the Vanderbilt (5-8), giving him a win against every team in the league in three seasons.
“It’s huge,” White said. “It feels good.”
This one was a one-sided affair early and a nail-biter late.
Florida scored the first nine points of the game and was up 40-20 at halftime. But Vanderbilt clawed its way back into the game thanks partly to 12 3-pointers and made it close down the stretch.
Riley LaChance’s 3-pointer with 1:38 remaining cut it to 74-70. But the Commodores missed their next two shots from behind the arc.
“It was a big hill, but we had a shot there to cut it to one with a minute left,” Vandy coach Bryce Drew said. “You would love to see that one go down if you are on our side just to see how that next possession would have gone. We might have been able to take the lead in the last 30 seconds.”
Instead, the Gators closed it out from the free-throw line.
“You are trying to go through which guy you want to foul, but eventually you have to foul an 80 percent free-throw shooter because they all shoot really well,” Drew said. “You don’t want to get in that position, but if you do, it is going to be tough to beat Florida with so many good free-throw shooters.”
Koulechov was 10-for-10 shooting from the line. Chiozza made both of his, and KeVaughn Allen was 6 for 6.
Equally important for Florida: The team had a season-low five turnovers.
“We talk about how this is kind of like a new season,” Koulechov said. “Everything that happened before that — not that it doesn’t count — but we’ve just got to forget about it, move on. Conference play is where it’s at. It was good for us to get this first win.”
Allen chipped in 16 points for the Gators, who have won three in a row.
Jeff Roberson led Vandy with 18 points and seven rebounds. Matthew Fisher-Davis (17), Saben Lee (13) and LaChance (11) also scored in double figures.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores’ lack of inside presence was obvious again and could make for a long SEC season. Vandy has to make 3s to counter the imbalance and hit 12 of 31 from behind the arc against Florida.
Florida: The Gators found some offensive success for the first time in weeks and did a much better job of driving to the lane and getting to the free-throw line.
Vanderbilt: Hosts Alabama on Tuesday night.
Florida: Plays at No. 5 Texas A&M on Tuesday night.