After racing out to a 20-point lead at halftime, Florida held on for a 81-74 victory over Vanderbilt in Gainesville.
The win helped Mike White end an 0-for-5 start against the Commodores since taking over in 2015.
Florida used a combination of excellent free-throw shooting and efficient ball handling to score the win. The Gators went 27 of 30 from the charity stripe, while committing only five turnovers in the game.
Great to close out 2017 with a W! Check out the highlights from the 81-74 win over Vanderbilt 🎥👇 pic.twitter.com/b5h1geHM3m
— Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) December 30, 2017
Egor Koulechov paced Florida with 22 points and eight rebounds, with the Rice transfer hitting all 10 free throw attempts.
Chris Chiozza added 17 for the Gators, and KeVaughn Allen posted 16.
The Commodores were led Jeff Roberson, who scored 18 points and added seven rebounds.
Let’s take a look at five takeaways from the SEC opener for both teams.
1. It’s too early to count Florida out as an SEC title contender
It’s easy to be frustrated by how the Gators finished pre-conference play, but when this team is firing on all cylinders, it’s still one that can beat anyone in the country.
Florida came out and played perhaps its best overall half of the season in the first 20 minutes, and that type of performance can take the Gators far in March.
White said first half v Vandy was best half Gators have played this year #Gators
— Kevin Brockway (@gatorhoops) December 30, 2017
Of course, the second half was sort of a different story, which takes us to next takeaway.
2. The Gators have to keep their foot on the gas in late-game situations
Give Vanderbilt credit for hitting shots down the stretch and making things interesting by cutting the lead to four with 1:38 left.
However, this felt like another case of Florida going against what had worked earlier in the game just to try to hang on for the win.
The Gators need to stay aggressive rather than slowing down and letting the competition stay close enough to have a shot in the final minutes.
There are a lot of NCAA Tournament-caliber teams in this league, so it’s essential that Florida put teams away when the opportunity presents itself.
3. Vandy may be finding a rhythm from 3-point land
The Commodores went 12 of 31 from beyond the arc, and there’s reason to believe that they’ve finally gotten out of their outside shooting slump.
Vanderbilt has now made 12 or more in three straight games, so that’s encouraging with three of their next four SEC games taking place in Nashville.
With little experience in the frontcourt, the Commodores will need to stay hot from three to have a shot at turning things around and finishing in the top half of the league.
4. A consistent Payton Willis could give Bryce Drew a spark going forward
Willis has often times felt like the forgotten man in Vandy’s guard rotation, but he tied a season-high with 28 minutes and hit double-digits in scoring for the first time this season.
The sophomore scored 10 points and dished out four assists (and had zero turnovers), and with players like Joe Toye and Larry Austin Jr. struggling to find their way right now, this is an opportunity for Willis to stay in the mix.
Again, the Commodores are going to have to put up a lot of shots from deep to stay competitive, and Willis’ 3 of 6 day from 3-point range gives hope that he can be an outside threat the rest of the way.
5. Is Egor Koulechov back?
After being a force in Florida’s first four games of the season, Koulechov has cooled down considerably over the past month.
And while he still only went 5 of 13 from the floor (but 2 of 4 from long range), he was solid overall in delivering his fourth-highest point total of the year. He played with confidence and energy, which is something we haven’t always seen from him throughout this slump.
The Gators obviously need him to play well to be successful, and perhaps this is the type of outing that will help him get back on track.
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