LEXINGTON, Ky. — In this era of social media, every day is National Something Day. In January alone, we've had National Hangover Day, National Trivia Day, National Milk Day and National Winnie the Pooh Day.
Well, it just so happened that Saturday was National Cheese Lovers Day.
Perfect.You'll excuse the Florida Gators for taking some liberties with this particular day of commemoration. Instead, it became National Cheez-lovers Day, as in senior point guard Chris Chiozza, as the man behind UF's 66-64 upset of No. 18 Kentucky before a stumped sellout crowd of 24,394 at Rupp Arena. Chiozza scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished eight assists, committed just one turnover and pulled off the game-icing play — a steal off an inbound pass — in the final two seconds to allow the Gators to escape Big Blue Nation with just the seventh win at Rupp in UK coach John Calipari's nine seasons.
"Every day should be National Cheez Day," Chiozza proclaimed afterward. "Except maybe for Kentucky fans."
Certainly not Saturday, not after the Gators (14-5, 6-1) handed the Wildcats (14-5, 4-3) a second straight Southeastern Conference loss and snapped a 30-game home winning SEC streak that stretched back to the 2014 season. With the victory, Florida remained a half-game up on Auburn for first place in the league standings, Alabama alone in third a game behind, and with Kentucky and Tennessee two full games tied for fourth place.
UF managed to leave the Bluegrass State in such good standing despite a horrific shooting performance. The Gators, the No. 2 offense in the SEC and top 3-point shooting team, made just 33 percent of their field-goal tries, including a dreadful 6-for-26 from the 3-point line (20 percent). How bad was it? Graduate-transfer forward Egor Koulechov went 0-for-8 from the floor and 0-for-5 from the 3-point line. Shooting guard KeVaughn Allen was 4-for-16 and 1-for-7 from deep. Backup guard and leading scoring Jalen Hudson was 4-for-13 and 2-for-8. Center Kevarrius Hayes even went 1-for-6 from the free-throw line.
So how did they win?
The Gators guarded, that's how. They limited the bigger, deeper Wildcats and their latest horde of freshmen one-and-dones to their second-lowest point total of the season on 40-percent shooting, just 4-for-17 from the arc, and 16 forced turnovers.
Florida led 66-64 when sophomore forward Keith Stone (14 points, 3 rebounds) stepped to the free-throw line for a one-and-one with 19.9 seconds remaining and a chance to seal the deal. He missed the front end, however, and Kentucky rebounded and brought the ball into the half court with a chance to tie it with a 2 or win it with a 3.
Point guard Quade Green drove the left side of the lane, but his shot attempt was stuffed out of bounds by Koulechov with 6.2 seconds left. Next, it was 6-foot-7, 235-pound forward PJ Washington's turn to get deep into the UF defense. This time, it was Hudson with a two-handed stuff, again, with the ball caroming out of bounds, as the Rupp faithful screamed bloody murder for a foul.
Only 2.5 seconds remained.
From the UK baseline, point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander tried to feed Green a pass coming off a screen to clear him for a 3-pointer just beyond the top of the key. Hayes, though, read the play and jumped it, with Chiozza dashing toward the scrum. Hayes got a finger on the ball as it arrived.
"I stayed between the ball and my man and just sort of naturally fell into position," Hayes said. "I jumped the play and got a hand on it."
Chiozza snatched the ball and tossed it up the court as the final horn sounded.
Again, the home crowd wanted a whistle. Instead, they got a rare home loss.
Someone told me after the game that it’s National Cheese Day. Heck, that’s every day for us. pic.twitter.com/l5SnF1hee8— Michael White (@MikeWhiteUF) January 21, 2018
Calipari was queried about potential contact that went uncalled in that final possession.
"I've been asked some dumb questions in my life," he said. "I don't mean to embarrass you, but everybody saw it."
He did not elaborate, but rather went on to praise his team and chalk some of their miscues up to youth.
When it was White's turn at the dais, he also was asked what he saw at the end of the game, a question clearly fishing for a reaction to the no-calls.
"I saw my guys flying around and trying to make plays," White said. "Hands on basketball down the stretch. Really active. And [saw] resiliency."
Hudson was more frank.
"We were more poised than they were," he said.
To have so much go wrong on the offensive end and still find a way to win — at one of the toughest venues in college basketball — was something that made the Florida coach very proud.
Cases in point: Koulechov didn't make any shots, but at 6-5 he scrapped for nine rebounds and that huge blocked in the final seconds; Hudson finished with a team-high 17 points, but also had five rebounds, went 7-for-10 from the free-throw line, plus had that second huge block late; Hayes had nine rebounds and banged with UK's front court for 32 minutes, equaling his season high; both Hudson and Allen (11 points) hit a pair of free throws apiece inside a minute left to give the Gators a six-point lead that shrank to two in the crazy final seconds.
There was nothing pretty about it, but that was OK.
"You can't let shots affect how hard you play. My guys need me, whether I make shots or not," said Koulechov, making like the ultimate teammate. "I try to help any way I can, whether it's rebounding or defending or leading out there. It wasn't my night [scoring], but that's not bothering me at all. This was a great win. The environment was amazing. To come in here and get a win is something I will take with me for the rest of my life."
Considering it was just the 10th road win for UF in 61 tries at Lexington, every Gator likely will remember it.
"I wanted to be able to say I won here once in my career," Chiozza said.
He did it on his last try.
The game was mostly back and forth all night, with 12 lead changes and four ties. Kentucky had an eight-point lead with five minutes to go in the first half, but Florida scored nine straight to go up, and held a 33-31 advantage at halftime.In the second half, it was the Gators' turn to take the lead out, as they opened an eight-point margin on back-to-back 3s from Hudson and Allen in the first five-plus minutes. Slowly, though, the Cats clawed back, with the Gators clanging away, at one point missing 12 of 14 shots, as UK retook the lead, 53-51, on a steal and run-out layup from Gilgeous-Alexander (10 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists). After Hayes tied the game with a monster slam-dunk off a baseline inbounds play, Alexander hit a 3 to go up 56-53.
The margin was one when Chiozza, with the shot clock about to buzz, drained a contested 3-pointer to put UF ahead 58-56. Though forward Kevin Knox (9 points, 4 rebounds) tied the score on a post-up move, the Gators never trailed again. A run of six straight points — a post-up by Hayes, a driving reverse layup from Stone (14 points, 3 rebounds) and two free throws from Allen pushed Florida in front 64-58 with 46.1 remaining.
After starting the night 2-for-15 from deep, Kentucky got a banked-in 3 from Knox and, after two Hudson free throws, a corner 3 from Wenyen Gabriel (10 points, 7 rebounds) inside the final minute to trim UF's lead to two and set up the wild ending, great Gators defense, and their feisty, diminutive playmaker for another big-moment play.
"He was terrific the entire game," White said. "I can't say enough about Chris Chiozza. I'm glad he's my point guard."