Florida scratched and clawed to stay in the game in a rough road environment where the crowd, and frankly the officiating, had a huge role in the game but the effort came up short as they fell to the Kentucky Wildcats by a score of 65-59. Despite some breakdowns in the early half that saw the Wildcats get some open looks at three and uncontested dunks the Gators were largely able to play tight defense but it was their lackluster offensive performance that ultimately led to the loss. Near the close of the game the Gators were within two points and on two separate occasions it looked like they had poked the ball out of bounds cleanly off a Wildcat player but the refs called puzzling fouls, crushing any opportunity they had at a comeback. Florida had some confident moments but some dreadfully dry spells as well and despite their poor moments they found themselves in a tight road game against a tenth ranked team and that should give them hope before the rematch happens again in Gainesville.
A Patented Scoring Drought
Going long stretches without a field goal seems to be part of Florida’s DNA and they kept the cycle going against Kentucky going over 7 minutes in the second half without a field goal. Considering the fact it was only a one possession game with 35 seconds left the 7 minutes without a field goal was devastating for the Gators and had they avoided that drought, Saturday’s outcome could have been much different. Making it worse was the fact that prior to that run the Gators had built a 7-point lead that made it seem like they controlled the game but the offense stalled and Kentucky ended up taking the lead. The Gators did a good job of defending during that stretch to keep the game close but any time you go that long without a bucket you’re going to be in trouble.
Tre Mann Gaining Steam
Whether you’re a believer in moral victories or not, you’ve got to be impressed by the play of Tre Mann even though the Gators weren’t able to win the game. The freshman had one of his best games of the season in a game where Florida needed someone to step up and his timely shot making kept the Gators in the mix. Finishing with 13 points on 5-8 shooting, most of Mann’s points came when the game was starting to get away from the Gators and with each make he looked like a looser and more confident basketball player. Andrew Nembhard (4 points, 7 assists, 4 turnovers) was taken out of the game at times due to the premier defense of Ashton Hagans and when that happened Mann was able to take some of the ball handling duties and performed well at the helm. When Mann is at his best he fills a job the Gators desperately need of a playmaker off the dribble and seeing him hit big shots against Kentucky in Rupp was exciting, even in a loss.
Noah Locke entered Saturday’s game on an absolute heater, hitting over 51% of his threes in conference play on a good amount of attempts. Unfortunately, his shooting took a dip against the Wildcats as he went 0-5 from three, finishing the game with 0 points and not making much of an impact. Overall the Gators shot only 26% from three and could have desperately used a few Locke threes but he didn’t seem to have the rhythm he showed when he was shooting the lights out over the past few games. Keyontae Johnson went 0-4 and Andrew Nembhard went 0-2 so Locke wasn’t the only one who couldn’t strike gold from deep and ultimately Florida’s shooting struggles were a big reason they lost.
In addition to the shooting woes it was Florida’s turnover problems that severely hurt them against Kentucky. The Gators coughed it up 15 times, a number made worse by the fact that many of them were live ball turnovers, meaning the Wildcats could get out and run in transition. Kentucky is a far better team in transition than in the half court and had the Gators limited run out opportunities their defense would have been in a better spot and the contest’s outcome could have been different. Leading to many of the turnovers was Kentucky’s aggressive perimeter defense that denied passes and forced one on one play, a style of defense that gave flashbacks to the Florida State game, another matchup where the Gators struggled. Since they see Kentucky again this season they’ll need to be prepared to handle the defensive pressure the second time around.
This game looked entirely winnable for Florida. They went over 7 minutes without being able to put the ball through the hoop and still almost found a way to win, and that was on a night they couldn’t shoot the three and they turned the ball over 15 times. Cleaning up even one of those areas and this could have been a win but instead it’s a loss that likely takes away any chance that the Gators had to win the SEC regular season, though it was a slim chance entering the game anyways. Kentucky’s aggressive brand of basketball is the exact style of defense that has given the Gators issues this season and you would have loved to see them a bit more prepared to run offense and while it’s late in the season to make drastic changes they will need to find some form of safer ball control in these final games. On what may be considered a positive note—this wasn’t a bad loss at all. It won’t hurt Florida’s NCAA Tournament resume (though, man a win would have helped) and they still have opportunities for quality wins moving forward. They went to one of the toughest road environments in the country and fought hard, and once again we saw the Gators ferocious effort at the end of tight games as they nearly forced key turnovers. It’s going to be a fascinating end to Florida’s season, and we have to hope that letting this game slip through their fingers doesn’t end up being devastating.