DALLAS — Once they completed the obligatory postgame media session, Florida seniors Chris Chiozza and Egor Koulechov walked back to the court inside American Airlines Center on Saturday night.
The clean-up crews were already fast at work dismantling the reminders that a riveting NCAA Tournament game had just been played here, a 69-66 win for Texas Tech as the Gators missed a couple potential game-tying 3-pointers in the final seconds.
The stands had all but cleared out as well, but a small segment of Florida family, friends and supporters remained and cheered both seniors one last time. They doled out hugs and shared emotions as the end arrived for two accomplished college basketball players.
Chiozza finishes as the Gators’ all-time assists leaders with 571, while Koulechov put up two high-scoring seasons at Rice before finishing as a graduate transfer at Florida this season, averaging 13.8 points and a team-best 6.4 rebounds per game.
“[They] in my opinion are two of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached, two of the toughest kids in college basketball,” Gators coach Mike White said. “Pound for pound they’re warriors and I love those guys.”
Chiozza always played beyond his size and delivered some indelible moments, including of course the buzzer-beater over Wisconsin to send Florida to the Elite 8 last year, the steely 26-point, 10 assist, 8-rebound performance in a double-overtime win over Gonzaga earlier this season and the steal and last-second layup to beat Missouri on the road. Among others. He averaged a career-best 11.1 points per game and led the SEC in assists this year while posting a strong 3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Koulechov, meanwhile, played through plantar fasciitis this season and often took on unenviable defensive matchups against bigger opponents when the Gators had no other options. He led the team in rebounding as a 6-foot-5 guard.
“If all 13 of my guys were as tough as these two, we’d still be playing,” White said. “Some of those young guys are going to continue to develop, but these guys pound for pound are absolute warriors. They’ve given us every ounce of energy and focus and work ethic that we could possibly ask for. I’m sad for these two guys that they don’t have another opportunity, but I’m really proud of them.”
Koulechov had a well-traveled career. Starting at Arizona State, he was relegated to the bench for his first NCAA Tournament experience in 2014. He then transferred to Rice where he averaged 16.7 and 18.2 points per game the last two seasons. And finally on to Florida. He scored a team-high 20 points in the Gators’ tournament opener against St. Bonaventure and finished with 12 on Saturday night.
After returning to the locker room last night, Koulechov was glum from the loss and from the late 3-pointers he missed in the final minutes, but also appreciative of his time with the program.
“This one year has been nothing but a blessing for me,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier I chose to come here, from the managers to coaches to players, they’ve been amazing. It’s been fun being around those guys, growing with them, experiencing all the things this year, this season. Yeah, it’s been amazing.”
Chiozza, meanwhile, lingered on the court much longer. He didn’t make it back to the locker room during the window open to the media, but he did share his thoughts at the earlier news conference.
“It’s tough to go out that way,” he said. “I don’t think it’s hit me fully yet. As soon as the buzzer sounded, I felt it a little bit, but so far I don’t think it’s hit me fully yet that my college career is over.”
It will surely hit the Gators and their fan base when next season begins without Chiozza’s veteran confidence at point guard.
In his address to the players right after the loss, White reiterated his appreciation for the two seniors, and their Florida teammates touched on it in postgame interviews as well.
“I love those dudes,” freshman guard Mike Okauru said. “Egor is a big brother to me, lets me know things I need to do. Chris, that’s a dude I look up to because we play the same position. I watch everything he does. I love those guys.”
Said junior guard Jalen Hudson: “I feel it for those guys. I definitely do. It’s their last time ever putting on this jersey. It was pretty emotional. I feel for them. I just wanted to give my all for them, and it hurts right now. There’s too much you can say.”
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