By Adesina O. Koiki
NEWARK, N.J. – Staring a third consecutive defeat in the face, Florida guard Chris Chiozza took it upon himself to make sure the Gators snapped out of their funk.
The senior guard scored the Gators’ last six points, as well as assisted on a crucial three-pointer late in the second half, as No. 5 Florida edged No. 17 Cincinnati 66-60 in the second game of the Never Forget Tribute Classic at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. The win snapped a two-game losing streak for the Gators, as they lost games in Gainesville earlier in the week to Florida State and Loyola Chicago.
Florida (6-3), after taking a six-point lead into halftime, opened the second half with guard Egor Koulechov’s two free throws to open up its biggest lead of the game at 36-28. After that, the rest of the half was close throughout, with the final 20 minutes featuring nine ties and seven lead changes.
The game was tied at 55 with four minutes remaining when Chiozza backed down his defender, Justin Jenifer, into the lane before zipping a pass to a wide-open Jalen Hudson in the right corner, who hit a three-pointer to give the Gators a 58-55 advantage.
A jumper by Kyle Washington and two free throws from Cane Broome gave Cincinnati a 59-58 lead, but then Chiozza continued to take over. With the game tied at 60, Chiozza once again drove to the basket and finished with a runner in the lane to give the Gators a two-point lead with 1:12 remaining. He then hit two free throws with 20 seconds left to build Florida’s advantage to four, before providing the final score of the game on a breakaway layup off a Cincinnati turnover with 10 seconds remaining.
Chiozza scored or had an assist on every Florida-made basket in the final 5:18.
“It’s been a tough week for us,” said Chiozza, who ended the game with 15 points and six assists. “That’s no secret. We had three games this week and we were able to play pretty quickly after that tough loss. You know, we just focused on ourselves, what we can do better, and we knew, especially, mental toughness. That that’s one thing, because I thought we were really soft this past week. We took a step forward today with that against a tough team.”
Florida’s Koulechov led all scorers with 21 points and also had seven rebounds, while the Bearcats’ Hudson chipped in with 17 points while hitting three three-pointers.
Cincinnati (7-2), which has now lost its last two games after dropping a decision to city-rival Xavier last Saturday, had four players score in double figures, led by Cane Broome’s 15 points off the bench.
“It becomes a one-possession game and when that happens, you can look back to a million things,” said Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin. “Break down here, break down there, but at the end of the day, [the Gators] were just a little bit better than us. I thought we fought a lot harder today than we had. But we didn’t play well by any stretch of the imagination. I thought we fought a lot harder than we had last week.”
Florida has a week until its next game, a matchup against the Clemson Tigers in Sunrise, Fla. on Saturday Dec. 16 at 4:30 PM EST.