December non-conference games carry only so much importance in the big picture of a college basketball season. Usually, that is.
But this Florida team really needed a positive Saturday night after three straight losses and an especially tough start to the week.
The Gators got it with a tightly-contested, down-to-the-wire 66-60 win over No. 17 Cincinnati in Newark, N.J., as part of the Never Forget Tribute Classic.
The teams combined for 10 ties and 13 lead changes in the back-and-forth duel.
Egor Koulechov led Florida (6-3) with 21 points, Jalen Hudson added 17 and point guard Chris Chiozza scored 15 points with 6 assists.
The Gators came into the week ranked No. 5 in the country having narrowly toppled top-ranked Duke in their only loss of the season. Then came lopsided home losses to a pair of unranked opponents, Florida State (83-66) and Loyola-Chicago (65-59).
The three straight losses amounted to a longer slide than Florida endured at any point last season on its run to the Elite 8.
Coach Mike White has called out the toughness of his team, but the Gators showed some tenacity down the stretch Saturday evening.
After leading by as many as 8 points early in the second half, Florida was locked in a tied ballgame at 55-55 with just less than 4 minutes remaining when the tension started to mount.
Point guard Chris Chiozza drove into the lane and dished to Jalen Hudson for a wide-open 3-point for a 58-55 Gators lead. Kyle Washington and Cane Broome scored the next four points to give Cincinnati a 59-58 lead.
Kevarrius Hayes calmly knocked down two free throws after missing a big one a minute earlier, giving the Gators a 60-59 lead. Gary Clark then tied it for the Bearcats by hitting one of two at the line, and Chiozza put Florida back on top with a floater for a 62-60 lead with 1:12 to play.
Hudson was credited with a block on the other end as Cincinnati came up empty. After an extended replay break, Keith Stone missed a thunderous dunk attempt, but the rebound caromed back to Chiozza and the Bearcats had no choice but to foul him with 20.1 second on the clock.
Chiozza hit both free throws to push the lead to 64-60.
Cincinnati turned the ball over on its final two possession as the Chiozza scored again and the Gators eventually let the clock tick away on a much-needed win.
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