Florida went to Kentucky battling for its postseason life, but the Gators just couldn’t outlast the No. 5 Wildcats in Rupp Arena on Saturday.
The 66-57 loss dropped Florida to a final regular season record of 17-14 and right at the .500 mark in SEC play at 9-9.
The Gators looked amped up at the tip in front of a record crowd. Noah Locke grabbed a steal on Kentucky’s first possession and went on to hit a jumper at the other end of the court to give Florida a 2-0 lead.
That advantage disappeared quickly as the Gators went on to miss their next five shots from the field and go down 8-4.
Florida just couldn’t find the basket for much of the first half as it only made five of its first 16 attempts. While the Gators struggled offensively, the Wildcats stretched their lead to as many as nine.
When it seemed the game could be falling right into Kentucky’s hands, some unexpected heroes stepped up for Florida. The Gators haven’t gotten much from Mike Okauru all season and hadn’t gotten much from Jalen Hudson all game, but those two scored on three straight possessions to cut the deficit to a point.
After a couple free throws from the Wildcats made it a three-point game, Locke came through with a three to make it 27-27 with 3:07 left in the half.
Isaiah Stokes had made his presence known since he entered the game, and Okauru found him for a layup to take the lead with just over a minute before halftime. He scored again on a slam the next possession and Florida ultimately took a 31-30 lead to the locker room.
After starting out shooting so poorly, the Gators went on a 15-5 run to end the half and made eight of nine shots at one point during the span.
The same couldn’t be said in the second half.
The Wildcats went back up by two within the first five minutes, and KeVaughn Allen answered with a three. Florida desperately needed to get some production from its leading scorer, but those would be his first and only points of the contest.
From there, Kentucky’s PJ Washington took over to begin the unraveling of the Gators. After scoring just four in the first half, Washington scored seven straight for the Wildcats.
Andrew Nembhard connected with Kevarrius Hayes to hold Kentucky off a little longer, but Florida’s 40-39 lead with 13:46 remaining turned out to be its last.
After that, the Wildcats went on a 15-2 run while the Gators did not score for more than seven minutes. That is not a great path to success in a hostile environment.
By the 5:47 mark, Kentucky led 54-42. For every answer the Gators had, the Wildcats had a bigger and better one.
Hayes completed a three-point play with 4:45 to go that brought it within single digits, but that’s the closest Florida would get until it became too little, too late.
Both Hayes and Hudson fought to make plays in the final minutes, but all Kentucky had to do was make its free throws to seal it, and it did.
Free throws not only hurt the Gators in the end, but all game long. It’s almost impossible to win when the opponent shoots nearly three times the number of free throws. Kentucky converted 26-of-32 from the line on the day while Florida made just 6-of-11.
“We’ve just gotta get better at drawing fouls and we’ve gotta foul less,” said head coach Mike White. “Or you’ve gotta convert from three. You’ve gotta do one or the other.”
The Gators were very poor from beyond the arc in the game as they finished 3-for-18. The Wildcats made one less three, but also didn’t shoot nearly as many at 2-for-7.
Another killer for Florida came in the rebounding department. Kentucky won that battle with ease at 39-23.
Surprisingly, despite the huge size advantage for the Wildcats, the Gators were better in the paint for the second time this season (32-22).
Hayes led the charge there on an 8-for-9 day from the field. The senior center put up a season-high 19 points and had a pair of blocks. That made him the only player in Florida history to get 60-plus blocks in three different seasons.
“I love him,” White said. “He’s tough as nails. He leaves it all out there on the floor. He’s literally had maybe two or three games this year out of 31 where I was a little bit disappointed in his effort, and that’s pretty special … He just brings it. He’s a high character off the floor, he’s a high character on the basketball court type kid.”
Behind Hayes, Hudson also finished in double figures with 13 and led the team with 6 rebounds.
The intensity and will to win was there on Saturday, but in the end, Kentucky’s talent prevailed.
Now, the Gators will be the No. 8 seed in the SEC Tournament and face the winner of the Arkansas-Alabama game at 1 p.m. on Thursday.