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Florida 116, Gardner-Webb 74: Egor Koulechov’s star turn leads explosive Gators

Suddenly, the Gators have a constellation of stars set to go nova on any given night.

NCAA Basketball: Gardner-Webb at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

On a day with rumors about the Florida Gators hiring a new football coach nearing fever pitch, the Florida Gators men’s basketball team had a chance to steal back the spotlight for itself.

And, oh, did it.

Graduate transfer Egor Koulechov poured in 34 points on just 17 shots and led a Florida offense that set a new record for threes in a season opener in an scintillating 116-74 win over Gardner-Webb on Monday night.

Moreover, Koulechov and his teammates stamped these Gators as a stupendously fun team to watch — which should be manna from heaven for the beleaguered Florida fan base.

Florida scored the season’s first points on an alley-oop seconds after the opening tip-off...

...and things hardly got less exciting from there, as an aggressive, gambling defense fueled an offense that ran to the rim again and again in transition and jacked up 29 threes, sinking 15 of them to establish a new record for a season opener.

Koulechov’s output, compiled in just 26 minutes, tied the most prolific scoring performance for a Gator in his debut, and was the sort of stunning bow that justified all of his offseason hype as one of college basketball’s most talented transfers. The former Rice star and Arizona State reserve drilled six of his nine threes, made five of his eight two-pointers, flashed skills as both a post scorer and driver, sank all six of his free throws, and had an additional five assists.

And yet, when he left the game for good with just more than eight minutes remaining, Florida led by 36 — and Florida won by 42.

That’s testament to the depth assembled by Mike White and his coaching staff, which yielded four double-digit scorers — Koulechov, Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson (16 points), and freshmen Deaundrae Ballard (14 points) and Michael Okauru (13 points -- on just four shots) — who did not play for the Gators a year ago on the evening. Florida shot a scalding 58 percent from the field and made 21 of 27 free throws from the field, and its 116 points were both its most since a 125-point explosion against Florida A&M in 2000 and its most under White.

And those players who were so good a year ago, Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen and Kevarrius Hayes and others? They’re still around. (So was Canyon Barry — who came as a fan and moonlit as a trombone player for the pep band during a first-half timeout.) They will figure heavily into Florida’s season, even if they are not always Florida’s stars on any given night — and even if coming foes will present more resistance than a Gardner-Webb team that clearly wore down as the game progressed.

But what White has built in just over two years is a constellation of such players, most of whom can go nova or deliver star turns on any given night.

And Florida’s future, as a result, is blindingly bright.