In a game that saw spectacular follow dunks, deep momentum-shifting three-pointers and a raucous O’Connell Center record crowd of 12,633 decked out in retina-burning orange t-shirts, it was one of basketball’s most subtle plays that solidified 23rd-ranked Florida’s emotional 70-68 victory against No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday night.
As expected, Wildcat coach John Calipari’s call after Chandler Parsons made 1-of-2 free throws with 12.7 seconds remaining to give the Gators a two-point advantage was for UK’s fantastic freshman point guard Brandon Knight to come off a screen and take either the game-winning or game-tying shot.
Originally, UF coach Billy Donovan assigned freshman Scottie Wilbekin to cover Knight, but sophomore Kenny Boynton – a longtime friend and rival of Knight’s – interjected and asked for that duty while the Gators ran what they call a “10 defense”, which encourages switching off of picks.
After Kentucky’s 6-foot-8, 244-pound Terrence Jones sealed off Boynton, Knight appeared free to take a three-pointer steps in front of the UK bench. However, UF’s 6-9 power forward Alex Tyus came over on the switch and lunged, forcing the 6-3 Knight to slightly alter his release and miss the potential winner.
“Alex made a great play there,” Boynton said. “That shot was probably going to go in.”
So, there it was, the simplest of tasks – one that doesn’t even have its own statistic – giving Florida an 18-5 record and a 7-2 mark in the Southeastern Conference. Combine that with Tennessee’s overtime loss to visiting Alabama earlier on Saturday and the Gators now hold a game-and-a-half lead in the East over the Volunteers (15-8, 5-3) and a two-and-a-half game advantage over traditional power Kentucky (16-6, 4-4).
“I had goosebumps being out there – the noise was crazy,” Parsons said. “The fans were great, and playing Kentucky in prime time with (ESPN) GameDay… it doesn’t get any better than that.
“Our guys did a great job of filtering out distractions and just played.”
While Jones (18 points, seven rebounds) had moments of greatness, Knight was the best player on the floor, recording a game-high 24 points to go along with five rebounds and four assists. However, Parsons may have been the most versatile talent in either uniform.
The 6-10 senior swingman led UF with 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Among the biggest moments in his 12th career double-double were a three-pointer with 14:19 left to give Florida a 50-42 advantage, and a putback layup and the subsequent free throw with 5:08 remaining to help the Gators reclaim the lead, 60-59, after Jones had drilled a three-pointer to cap a 17-7 Wildcats’ run.
Then, in one motion 2:01 later, Parsons elevated over the rim, grabbed a missed three-pointer from Erving Walker as it bounced away and stuffed it back through to revitalize the Gator faithful that had seen UK bounce back from a 13-point second-half deficit to take a 64-61 advantage on a three-pointer by Darius Miller.
“I thought Chandler really stepped up,” said Donovan, whose Gators have now won 9-of-the-last-12 in the series with Kentucky. “He made some huge plays for us.”
He wasn’t the only one.
League foes have determined the best way to disrupt the 5-8 Walker, UF’s leading scorer, is to have him defended by a bigger guard. Vanderbilt did it Tuesday night with 6-7 Jeffery Taylor, and Kentucky did the same with 6-7 DeAndre Liggins.
The results were a two-game combined 6-for-23 shooting effort, including 1-for-9 against UK.
In stepped Scottie Wilbekin.
The 6-2 freshman guard from Gainesville was successful on all three of his shot attempts (including two three-pointers) for nine points in just eight first-half minutes.
“I just wanted to come in and do my part,” Wilbekin said. “It’s really exciting to be a part of games like that.”
Senior center Vernon Macklin made 4-of-6 shots to finish with 11 points. And while he finished with only two rebounds, Macklin was part of a frontcourt that limited the SEC’s co-leaders in board-crashing (Jones and Harrellson at 9.0 rpg each) to a combined 10 rebounds.
Perhaps the best thing Macklin, who entered the night shooting 38.6 percent from the foul line, did was make 3-of-3 free throws to help the Gators finish 18-for-22. That 81.8-percent outing was more than 17-percent better than UF, which came into the contest 11th in the league at the line, usually shoots.
Tyus was nearly invisible in the first half, going scoreless and grabbing just one rebound in seven relatively inconsequential minutes. However, the final 20 minutes saw him play an energetic 13 and make 3-of-4 shots to finish with eight points, four rebounds, two blocked shots, an assist, a steal and one very meaningful defensive switch.
The victory now means Florida has defeated every team in the East except for Wednesday night’s road opponent, South Carolina (13-8, 4-4), which topped the Gators, 72-69, in Gainesville on Jan. 15. It’s also the first time a Calipari team has lost two straight since 2004-05 Memphis, when it lost four consecutive games.
“(The Gators) deserved the win the way they played,” Calipari said. “We fought back and gave ourselves a chance.”
It just wasn’t enough, as Florida has now beaten back-to-back ranked opponents in Vanderbilt and Kentucky, a pair of teams UF went 0-4 against last season.
“We’re going to enjoy this one (Saturday night),” Parsons said. “We’ll celebrate and have a good time.
“But (Sunday) we’ll be right back at it, getting ready for the next game.”
No doubt they’ll continue to work on the small things that win big games.
*Knight (6-for-6), Walker (6-for-6), Macklin (3-for-3), Boynton (3-for-3), Tyus (2-for-2) and Kentucky’s Doron Lamb (2-for-2) combined to make all 22 of their combined free throw attempts.
*The two teams each finished with 32 rebounds. UF had 15 assists to UK’s 14 and Kentucky finished with 11 turnovers to Florida’s nine.
*Class of 2013 forward prospects Chris Walker (6-9 from Bonifay Holmes County) and Junior Etou (6-8 from Jacksonville Arlington Country Day) were scheduled to be in attendance at the game.
Gator Players of the Game: Chandler Parsons led UF with 17 points, 12 rebounds (three offensive) and five assists (tying Erving Walker for game honors). He also blocked a shot against UK and according to Donovan may have become the first-ever player the Gator coach has ever played for all 20 minutes of the second half in a game. In all, Parsons played a turnover-free 37 minutes.
Opposing Players of the Game: Freshman guard Brandon Knight led all scorers with 24 points (on 7-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three-point range). He also converted on all six of his free-throw attempts, grabbed five rebounds and dished out a team-high four assists. Knight added a blocked shot but also had four turnovers.
Play/sequence of the Game: Alex Tyus got a hand up just high enough to slightly alter Knight’s game-winning three-point attempt right before the buzzer.
Stat of the Game: The two teams combined to make 29-of-35 foul shots (82.9 percent) for the game.
Next Up: The Gators will visit South Carolina (13-8, 4-4) on Wednesday at 8 p.m.