Entering Tuesday night’s game, the upperclassmen on the No. 7 Florida Gators hadn’t experienced a lot of success against No. 25 Kentucky.
In fact, for the majority of Florida’s roster, a win against Kentucky was a sensation which had yet to be felt, as the Gators entered the contest losers of five straight against the Wildcats.
The losing streak now stands at zero.
The Gators used a resurgent defensive effort to pound the Wildcats on Tuesday 69-52.
By the time Sister Hazel had finished their rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” the O-Dome was already rocking on its foundation. On this night, the home team and its crowd were a desperate bunch. The Gators were favored heading into the game, but it certainly didn’t feel like it.
This was a Kentucky team which was confident after winning five straight games. With Florida’s recent loss of forward Will Yeguete, the Gators came into the game undersized and undermanned at arguably the worst possible time.
However, the experienced Gators seemed unfazed by the task at hand. The Wildcats jumped out to a quick 4-0 start, and would actually hold the lead for nearly four minutes. Florida knifed into the deficit with an Erik Murphy three-pointer, and took their first lead for with a Mike Rosario layup at 15:38 in the first half.
Kentucky managed to stay close to the Gators in the first half, trying to force the Gators inside on defense, while simultaneously forcing it into the paint on offense.
“We came in with something I thought we could do to give us a chance to win,” Calipari said after the game. “I thought we started really good and then all of a sudden we broke down. Our whole thing was “Let’s guard the three.’ … This was almost a game that exposed us physically and [Florida] did a good job it.”
Lost in the sea of orange and blue were several pockets of Kentucky fans, who as usual traveled whatever distance necessary to unfailingly cheer on their team. After the ‘Cats took an 11-10 lead at the 12:24 mark, it appeared as if the fans made a wise investment, coming in for what would ultimately be a back and forth affair.
However, after a pair of Murphy free throws to put the Gators up 12-11, the Florida lead would hold for good.
Last week Billy Donovan was wary of forward Casey Prather’s struggles since returning from a high ankle sprain. On Tuesday, it appeared that Prather was officially his old self. Prather finished with 12 points on 6 of 8 shooting while also notching two blocks.
After UF began their late first half run, fueled by a string of three-pointers, Prather offered perhaps the highlight of the night with an emphatic dunk with 1:54 remaining in the first half to push UF up by 15 points.
The Gators went into halftime up 38-25, and any early-game uneasiness had already dissipated as it became clear that Florida was in control.
After two consecutive games of uninspired defense, Florida again found its chops.
“I thought we got better,” Donovan said. “Our effort, our focus, our guys being connected on defense … they really did a much better job than the last couple of games.”
Florida managed to offset Kentucky’s size advantage with relentless energy all night long. Calipari said after the game the Gators seemingly took the ball whenever they wanted to and UK’s 17 turnovers support his claim.
Although UK tried to use its size to its advantage, the Gators never relented down low, with junior Patric Young leading the charge in the paint.
“I thought [Young] did a really, really good job,” Donovan said. “When he gives incredible effort and plays with a really good motor, he is capable of getting double-doubles every night.”
While the Gators managed to stay in cruise control in the second half, the game was not without a somber moment, as Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel suffered a gruesome knee injury late in the second half. Noel had to be carried off the courts by his teammates, which actually brought a warm applause form the O-Dome crowd.
Calipari said that he didn’t know much about Noel’s injury, but did say it “looked ugly.”
The rest of the second half was more celebration than ball game as the fans and the Gators bench seemed to soak in every moment of finally coming out on top against the Wildcats.
“(Florida) is an outstanding basketball team,” Calipari said. “They were last year, they are this year. They’re well coached, they’re talented and they’re very physical …. We couldn’t get near the basket on Young; he just physically took away the rim.
Young would join Prather as one of five Florida players to finish with double figures in scoring, notching 12 points on 5 of 7 shooting while grabbing 11 rebounds. The others were Wilbekin (12), Rosario (12) and Murphy (10).
“Coach Donovan challenged us, he challenged me,” Young said. “He told me ‘nothing’s given to you, you got to go out there and earn it every night. His analogy is that each SEC game is a diamond and we’re trying to collect each one so that we can have a big ring.”