LEXINGTON, KY — They came here ready to erupt, ready to remind the Florida Gators that nothing has really changed in the Southeastern Conference. Remember Arkansas and the 40 minutes of hell back in the 90s? They’ve seen lots of SEC teams enjoy their 15 minutes of fame, but always, Big Blue is Big Blue and Kentucky is still the standard everybody is measured by.
No matter how these things go in cycles — and we’ve seen plenty of cycles over the years — it always comes down to one thing in the Southeastern Conference. If you’re going to win the SEC, you’ve got to win in Lexington.
So along came Florida Saturday night, the latest team to assume a mantle that traditionally belongs to Kentucky. Kentucky has seven national championships in its storied history. Florida’s storied basketball history is short and sweet and never sweeter than last season when the Gators became only the second SEC team other than Kentucky (Arkansas won it in 1994) to win the NCAA championship. That the Gators are getting so much love from the national media is like raking the chalkboard with two-inch nails here in Lexington and that’s why this game had all the makings of a big time upset.
The ESPN Game Day crew was in town. Dickie V got here on Friday and broke his own world record for saying the most words without saying anything at all. There was a record crowd of 24,465 on hand, all of them lathered and ready to to blow the roof off the place. There was plenty of incentive to raise the decibel level beyond deafening, too, since no number one team had ever come to Rupp Arena and escaped with a win.
They were ready for something beautiful to happen here Saturday night but instead of drop dead gorgeous — and any kind of win would have been centerfold quality as far as the Kentucky faithful were concerned — things turned ugly. Really, really ugly.
And not just for Kentucky. It was ugly for the Florida Gators, too.
But sometimes ugly can be really, really beautiful. Like when your ugly cousin gets married. She may be sneak up on a mirror ugly but once she puts on a wedding gown and marches down the aisle, she looks really, really beautiful.
You win in the Southeastern Conference on the road — especially at Rupp Arena — and it’s really, really beautiful.
“Sometimes ugly is a beautiful thing,” said Al Horford, shaking his head and smiling after the number one ranked Gators escaped with a 64-61 cliffhanger of a win. “It’s all about winning and we came out of here with a win.”
Escaping with a win was the only thing that mattered for the Gators, who had what Chris Richard called a “Murphy’s Law kind of game.” The 6-9 senior came off the bench to deliver 11 critical points in the first half to hold the Gators together when Kentucky was clawing its way back into the game after falling behind 30-14 with 7:33 remaining in the first half.
Things were looking up at that point. Things weren’t looking quite so up the rest of the half as Kentucky closed within four before falling behind 36-27 at the intermission.
“You name it, it went wrong,” said Richard. “You gotta win games like that, though. This is the Southeastern Conference. You grind ‘em out in the SEC. You win ‘em anyway you can. Things may not go your way, but you stay with it. You find a way to win it.”
The Gators won it despite foul troubles that kept Horford on the bench for all but five minutes in the first half. Joakim Noah had the exact same problems although he did see nine minutes of first half playing time.
Florida also won despite one of the worst three-point shooting nights they’ve had in a long time. Entering the game, the Gators were second in the nation in three-point shooting. They were 5-17 on this night. Lee Humphrey, 33-48 on three-pointers in SEC games, had every open look you could hope for but this was not his night. His only three-pointer was from 28 feet as the shot clock wound down to zero with 9:21 left in the first half.
In the second half, the Gators were 1-8 from the three-point line. They made way too many mistakes with the ball, particularly at the end of the game when they needed to hang on to it and run some clock. They let Kentucky get far too many second and third shots. They missed critical free throws.
Yet somehow, someway, the Gators held the lead bell to bell.
“One of the ugliest games I’ve ever played in,” said point guard Taurean Green, who contributed 13 points. “I’ll take an ugly win over a pretty loss anyday, though.”
What kept ugly from turning uglier — uglier as in a loss — was the fact that as bad as the Gators were from the three-point stripe, Kentucky was even worse.
“To me, the key was they were 1-20 from the three-point line and then Ramel Bradley hit a couple of back-to-back threes and they ended up going three for 22,” said Coach Billy Donovan.”I thought our defense on the perimeter taking away the three-point line wass really good but it was our defense that kept us in it because I don’t think offensively we had any cohesiveness.”
Entering the game, the Gators had allowed their last five opponents just 23-98 from the three-point stripe. The Gators ratcheted the perimeter defense up a few notches, particularly on the final possession of the game when Green smothered Bradley at the three-point line. Bradley somehow got a shot off, but it didn’t even come close.
“This is the SEC,” said Corey Brewer, who scored six of Florida’s last eight points and led the Gators with 16. “You expect every game is going to come down to the last shot. We played good defense and they missed. That’s the way it is.”
The game came down to the last shot because the Gators made three colossal mistakes in the final minute of the game.
Florida led 60-52 with 35.3 seconds left in the game when Noah got way too close to Ramel Bradley, who leaned in, forced some contact and then threw up a prayer that was partially answered. The ball didn’t go in but he did get a questionable call that sent Noah to the bench with his fifth foul. Bradley hit two of the three free throws to close the gap to 60-54.
Over the next eight seconds, Brewer hit three three throws for the Gators to extend the lead back to nine, 63-54, but Bradley worked his way off a screen to nail a three with 20.8 seconds left making it a six-point game.
Colossal mistake number two was on the inbounds pass. Horford made a soft lead pass intended for Green. Way too soft. Bradley stepped in front and let fly with his second straight three-ball to make it a three-point game with 18.4 seconds left.
After Brewer hit one of two free throws to make it 64-60, Green fouled Bradley and the Kentucky point guard hit one of his two shots, setting up colossal mistake number three.
Horford spotted Green going long at the other end of the court, but his pass was way too high and way too long, giving the Wildcats possession with 9.7 seconds left for a last gasp three to tie and send the game into overtime.
Florida showed enough press that Kentucky didn’t have a long pass option, so the Wildcats were forced to dribble it up the court. They got the ball on the right wing to Bradley but Green was all over him. When the shot clanked off the rim into the hands of Brewer, the Rupp crowd that had done its part to help the Wildcats pull off the upset fell into silence.
Florida escaped with a win in the toughest environment the Gators will play in all season and they did it even though they played one of their most inconsistent games of the season.
“I never thought we got into the flow of the game,” said Donovan, “and that is why I am so proud of the win because we found a way to win the game. Give Kentucky credit. They made some great plays at the end. I thought our guys fought. They battled. They found a way to win the game in a very difficult environment and I was very, very proud of them.”
What made the win all the more satisfying is the three-game cushion it gives the Gators on the rest of the SEC field. Florida is 10-0 in the league with six games to go, three at home in the friendly confines of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center where they are unbeaten this year. Second place Kentucky has a 7-3 SEC record and the Wildcats are the league’s only team at three losses.
“We can’t look on it like it’s a cushion,” said Richard, who grabbed five rebounds to go with his 11 points. “As soon as we do that, we can get knocked off by somebody. We have to treat this like someone’s right on our heels. We can’t let up. We also have to play a lot better than we played tonight.”
Reminded that the Gators have won their last 16 games and they’re ranked number one in the nation, Richard smiled but wouldn’t give in.
“That’s all good what you’re saying,” he said. “I mean it’s really good and all that, but we can’t play like we did tonight and expect to win games. It says a lot that we did win it tonight in a tough place to play, but we can play a lot better than this. We have to play a lot better than this.”
They can play better. They most likely will play better. But Saturday night, they didn’t have to play better. They played well enough to win and that was all that mattered.
“Sometimes, it works out that way,” said Richard. “Sometimes you win even when nothing goes right. Sometimes you have to find ways and keep on grinding it. I know it’s not pretty to look at but wins are pretty, not how you get them.”
GAME NOTES: Florida’s 16-game winning streak puts the Gators within one of the all-time school record of 17. The Gators can equal their best streak ever Wednesday night when they play host to Alabama at the O-Dome … Kentucky leads the series with Florida 84-29, but the Gators have won the last five games including the last two at Rupp Arena … Florida shot 46.9 percent from the field for the game. Kentucky shot 23-60 (38.3 percent).