Fans who gathered at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center to bid farewell to the O-Dome before a major $65 million dollar renovation were treated to the same story they’ve bore witness to all season long. The Florida Gators (17-13, 8-9 SEC) needed a win in the worst way to save fizzling hopes of making the NCAA Tournament but were unseated by the No. 22 Kentucky Wildcats (22-8, 12-5 SEC) in a 88-79 loss.
Emotion filled the arena, fans who remembered great games of season’s past were loud and tried to will their Gators to a win, but for the second time this season Kentucky proved to be the better team.
“I can’t fault our effort,” head coach Mike White said after the game. “I thought we played really hard. Kentucky was just better.”
White came in with an obvious gameplan, get the ball down low to John Egbunu. It worked. Egbunu scored a career-high 27 points on 12-of-15 (80%) shooting but the rest of the team combined to shoot just 17-53 (32%). Florida dominated the paint, outscoring Kentucky 42-26 in the painted area. The poor shooting night didn’t exist just in the field but extended to the free throw line — yet again — as Florida shot a dismal 43.2% (16-37) from the charity stripe. In a season full of forgettable free throw shooting nights, Tuesday was the worst, and it couldn’t have happened at a less opportune time.
“You can’t win big games missing free throws,” senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “We missed 20 free throws. It was crazy.”
Finney-Smith was honored before the game as one of Florida’s two seniors on Senior Night. He poured in 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting but was just 1-of-5 from beyond the arc.
On the other end of the floor, Florida didn’t have an answer for Kentucky guard Jamal Murray. Murray shot 4-6 from three-point land and led the Wildcats with 21 points. Florida even went to a trap zone defense, something they haven’t utilized much this season, to try and deal with Murray.
“We gambled and it’s something we haven’t done much this year,” White said. “We had a failed rotation which led to a 3 in the corner, the opposite corner of our bench. That was a big one there … he converted at the foul line.”
Florida gave up 52 second half points and more than 80 points in a game for the third consecutive game.
“Sometimes you just face a really good offense that is playing really well,” said White. “Tonight, we made some mistakes, but we weren’t terrible defensively.”
Tyler Ulis, who White called, “arguably the best point guard in the country” filled the stat sheet with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
White was looking to make his first trip to the NCAA Tournament as a head coach, but Florida’s four-game slide has put Florida on the bubble at best. The Gators will need to win on Saturday at Missouri and then make a run in the SEC Tournament to try and sneak into White’s first NCAA Tournament or else be relegated to the NIT, where because of the O-Dome renovations, Florida would have to hit the road.