The Florida Gators and Kentucky Wildcats battled it out on Saturday to decide which team would come away with the lone first place spot in the SEC with just one week of regular season play remaining.
Early on, it looked like Florida would be that team and would outplay the Wildcats once again, this time in Rupp Arena. That story didn’t quite unfold, as the Gators let a 12-point lead in the first half slip out of their fingertips.
Florida started the game with an 8-0 lead, with Kentucky finding no offensive production until nearly four minutes into the game on a couple of free-throws. Later in the half, the Gators watched a 12-point lead turn into a two-point deficit, letting the Wildcats stroll right back into the game with a 17-3 run.
The Gators took by a 28-23 lead, but a final minute and a half of fouls on three different Florida players would turn into five Kentucky points and a tie game at the half.
The second half of the game was completely dominated by one player, Malik Monk. Monk had just three points in the first half, but went off for 30 more in the second. He was unstoppable. Nearly every time he touched the ball, whether he did it from the field or from the foul line, the ball was going in the net.
The first five minutes of the half were strong for the Gators, but when Monk took over, there were no answers. The Wildcats went on to take the game 76-66 to secure first place in the SEC and end Florida’s nine-game winning streak.
Monk was 9-for-18 from the field with a 5-for-6 night from three and 10-for-11 from the line. There were 22 fouls called on Florida in the game, compared to just 13 by Kentucky. John Calipari said after the game that his message to Monk at halftime was to be more aggressive and draw fouls, and it worked.
“You’ve gotta crowd him,” Mike White said on Monk. “I mean, we were hanging all over him two or three times, just hanging all over him. Then, we were called for a few fouls, of course, fouling the jump shot. That’s how aware you are of how good of a shooter he is. We were literally hanging on him too much with contact. Then, he’s got blow-by speed. He’s got an incredibly long first step, explosiveness. When he didn’t score it, he’s drawing fouls on us. So, I mean, his 33, if you add the amount of fouls that he drew, he was better even than the 33.”
Along with Monk’s outstanding offensive performance, Edrice Adebayo played a major factor for the Wildcats with 15 boards. Florida simply was not the same rebounding team it was in Gainesville a few weeks ago, or maybe Kentucky was just a lot better, but something changed drastically this game.
The Gators outrebounded the Wildcats 50-29 in the first matchup of the season, but the tables were turned as Kentucky had a 48-30 edge this time, with a major advantage of 36-19 on the defensive glass. Along with the number of fouls, rebounding was a key to the outcome of the game.
“In Gainesville, when we outrebounded them by 25, I was really surprised, because we’re not that great of a rebounding team,” said White. “I’m just as surprised right now that we got outrebounded that badly today. It’s such a funny game. It’s got the momentum factors and the confidence factors and the swing factors and the home-road factors. This was an electric environment and that’s a factor as well.”
While rebounding was far from being Florida’s strength in the game, White didn’t seem to be disappointed in the effort his team gave. Kentucky is the top rebounding team in the conference, after all.
“Credit Kentucky and their kids,” he said. “We just talked about it as a staff. Did we not play as hard today as we did in Gainesville? Absolutely not. It’s not the case. I mean, my guys were flying all over the floor and diving on the floor and we got bumps and bruises. It was a hard-fought, physical game, where a bunch of guys just left it out there.”
The Gators struggled to find a rhythm, as a team, offensively. Just four players scored more than four points in the game. KeVaughn Allen and Justin Leon accounted for 24 of Florida’s 28 points in the first half, while Devin Robinson and Chris Chiozza chimed in during the second half to keep the game from getting out of hand in Kentucky’s favor.
Allen finished with 24 points in the game, shooting 9-for-17 in the game and 5-for-11 from long range. It was his second consecutive game scoring more than 20 points. Leon did most of his damage in the first half, but finished with 13. Robinson had nine points and led the Gators with 11 boards.
Florida will now have to hope for two wins and a Kentucky loss in the final week of conference play to stay in contention for the SEC regular season title. The Gators must move on from this loss and prepare for two tough games against Arkansas and at Vanderbilt next week. Arkansas put up a fight against the Gators earlier in the season, while Vanderbilt handed Florida a loss in Gainesville and will make things even more difficult on its home court.
This week has the potential to be a rough one for the Gators if they do not move forward from this game. When the season’s previous streak of seven consecutive wins came to an end at South Carolina, Florida hit its lowest point of the season with back-to-back losses. The hangover effect could strike again if the Gators are not careful.
“We’ve gotta move onto the next one,” White said. “It was fun while it lasted. We lost at Kentucky. It’s okay. It happens. A lot of teams lose here. A lot of things that we can learn from today and right around the corner is Arkansas, who’s playing terrific. They’re very difficult to defend as well. We’ve gotta move on. Two left: SEC Tournament, NCAA Tournament. We can’t hang on this one here for a few days. We can’t. We don’t have time.”