Senior moments! Gators get big win at Rupp

They are a little young to be doing commercials for the AARP, but Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Will Yeguete do know a few things about senior moments. They had one collectively that they will remember for a lifetime Saturday night at Rupp Arena when they led 3rd-ranked Florida (23-2, 12-0 SEC) to a 69-59 win over 14th-ranked Kentucky (19-6, 9-3 SEC).

Florida’s senior citizens, 0-3 at Rupp in their UF careers heading into Saturday night, outscored Kentucky’s fab freshman class – declared the greatest in the history of the game before the season began by all the so-called experts – 58-37. They understood what it took to win and put their experience to work. In the final 10 minutes of the game when the Gators took control, the seniors scored 22 of Florida’s 28 points as they turned a game that was teetering on the verge of the first loss since December 2 into a 10-point win.

In making that 28-15 closing run, the Gators were the cool, composed team that acted like it had been in big games before. Kentucky looked like — well, a bunch of freshmen. Not only did the freshmen lose their cool but so did John Calipari, who got lit up for a technical foul by referee Michael Stephens with 8:14 to go. The Gators turned that outburst into two free throws by Wilbekin and a layup by Prather to complete Florida’s comeback from a seven-point deficit, 49-48.

The seniors scored all but three of Florida’s points in the final 10 minutes and each of them made critical contributions that made the difference in the outcome.

Prather, slowed the last couple of weeks by a gimpy ankle, spent the night soaring above or slicing through the Kentucky defense for a game-high 24 points to go with four rebounds, four steals and an assist. Prather carried Florida offensive in the first half when he scored 12 points and he scored four of the  first eight points to help ignite the Gators offensively to start the second half when they turned a 31-28 halftime deficit into a 36-34 advantage.

But his senior moment came with 1:23 to go in the game with Florida leading 64-59. Wilbekin missed a jumper as the shot clock wound down, but the 6-6 Prather skied between 6-9 Julius Randle and two other Wildcats to grab the offensive rebound. Fouled on the play, he made one of two free throws to make it a six-point advantage.

“I knew if I jumped high as I could I could get the ball so I jumped as high as I could and I got it,” Prather said on the Florida Radio Network after the game.

Wilbekin scored 23 points, hitting 2-3 from the 3-point line and 11-12 at the foul line including 7-8 in the final 8:14. Other than the free throws, his most important stat was zero as in zero turnovers for the second straight game. Following a Florida time out with 13:43 to go in the game in which Billy Donovan lit into his team to start making shots and play with confidence, Wilbekin got into the lane and hit a short jumper over Cauley-Stein to cut Kentucky’s lead to 41-38.

His senior moment came with 9:22 to go in the game. Florida was trailing at the time, 45-41. With the shot clock winding down, Wilbekin knocked down a 3-ball to bring the Gators back within one.

Young, who contributed 10 points and five rebounds, was 1-6 from the field in the first half and 1-7 with 11 minutes to go. Over the next five minutes he went from non-factor into a determined post scorer. He converted a 3-point play with 10:39 to go and got another one with 6:39 left in the game to give the Gators a 47-46 lead.

His senior moment came with 6:39 left in the game when he used his left hand to hit a baby hook over Cauley-Stein to give the Gators a 53-50 lead.

In his post game remarks, Donovan noted that when Young asserted himself, the Gators took control, noting “he [Young] stuck with it and showed great maturity. I was so proud of the way he played down the stretch.”

Yeguete only scored one point but he contributed four rebounds, two assists, two steals and a blocked shot and combined with Young to limit Kentucky’s two seven-footers to a combined four points and four rebounds.

Yeguete’s senior moment came in the first five minutes of the second half. Trailing 31-28 at intermission, Yeguete did the little things at both ends of the court that got Florida going. He sneaked in from the backside to double team Dakari Johnson, forcing a walk. Wilbekin scored on the ensuing possession, Florida’s first points of the game. He made the perfect pass when Prather left his man on a back door cut. Prather didn’t have to break stride and went up for a dunk. On Kentucky’s ensuing possession, Yeguete rooted Randle off the blocks for position to grab the rebound. Down at the other end, Wilbekin scored to give Florida its first lead since the score was 19-16 with 7:44 to go in the first half.

This was another grind-it-out win for the Gators, who tied the school record with their 17th straight win while setting a school record for a 12-0 start in the Southeastern Conference. With a three-game lead on Kentucky and three of their final six regular season games at home, the Gators are squarely in the driver’s seat to capture the seventh SEC championship in school history, the sixth under Donovan and their third since 2011.

Florida trailed by as many as seven points twice in the game – 31-24 in the first half and 45-38 in the second – but both times it was the seniors who came through with the big plays at both ends of the floor to bring the Gators back. Florida trailed, 31-28, at the end of the first half, but the Gators had to feel good about themselves since they only shot 33% from the field and Kentucky was hitting 50%. In the second half, the Gators got it going offensively, hitting 12-20 from the field and equally as important, they got to the foul line. Florida was 22-28 from the line in the game, but 15-17 in the second half, all in the last 10:39 when the game was on the line.

Also, the Gators held their own on the boards. Kentucky is one of the top rebounding teams in the country and the leader in the SEC, but the Wildcats managed only a 31-28 margin over Florida and the Gators held a 10-9 advantage on the offensive boards.

Although the Wildcats had a serious size advantage, the Gators outscored them in the paint, 34-22 and in second chance points, 12-8.

Florida only turned the ball over five times and the Gators converted 13 Kentucky turnovers into 14 points.

Kentucky came into the game averaging 78.8 points per game. Their 59 points was their lowest scoring output of the season.

Next up for the Gators is Auburn on Wednesday night.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.