‘Cat Nation was out in full force today. I was also impressed at the Gator contingent, however. My worry coming in was that it would be like a home game for UK, but it was more like an SEC Championship Game in football when Alabama is one of the entries. We all know how their fans were given the golden path to ticket hording with the first two title games played in Birmingham. My concern about the fan imbalance was bolstered on the train to the Dome, wherein there was about one Florida fan for every ten Kentucky fans. When we pulled into the Georgia Dome station, a core of Kentuckians led them in their rally cheer, “C!-A!-T!-S!, CATS! CATS! CATS!” This must have been the Lexington library set because by my accounting only about 30% of them spelled it incorrectly.
It was clear the Gators had it in mind to come out of the gate giving it right under the ‘Cats’ chin, with the highest energy level and firing threes immediately off the break with absolutely no respect for Kentucky’s defense or abilities on the defensive glass. Statement shots. And the statement was, “We are here to blow you out of the building.
Nobody expected that to happen, except maybe the Gator players themselves, but the statement was made nonetheless. They were not satisfied with a 2-game regular season sweep of Kentucky and a #1 seed – probably THE #1 seed – in the NCAA tourney already in the bank. They were here to play their best game and to win. Decisively.
Two Turning Points Passing In the Night…or Afternoon
When Patric Young left the game in the first half after getting his second foul, Kentucky had a golden opportunity to take over the game in the paint with their prohibitive size advantage. But the UF lead instead ballooned from 2 to 9 in a heartbeat. That’s because two things happened. Both were predictable.
First off, Kentucky did what they do: when they think it is going to be easy, they take the foot off the gas and expect their athleticism will take over and do the job for them without having to work for it. The second thing that happened is that Florida did what they do: adjust to the situational change and out-work the opposition. They took the defense up a step, blanketed the guards on the perimeter and denied the passing lanes into the paint. Kentucky couldn’t score from inside if they couldn’t get the ball inside.
What should have been a positive turning point for the Kentucky team was turned into a positive turning point for the Gators. After a long timeout wherein Gator Nation held its collective breath while Michael Frazier II lay writhing on the court, the Florida lead was quickly pushed to 14.
When UK inched the lead back to 10, Devon Walker made an errant pass in the paint that eluded Will Yeguete and found the end line. That’s when Scottie Wilbekin gave Devo a big smile and pushed his hands down to the ground to convey, “Calm down, take your time, we got this.” Senior leadership has buoyed and driven this team all year. Today was no different.
I have to make special note of the job that Yeguete did on Julius Randle inside when Patric Young was forced out of the game with early foul trouble. Randle’s frustration was palpable. Heck it was flying off of him like feathers off Daffy in Duck Season. You could just hear the shouting in his head: “I am bigger than him; I am stronger than him; I am better than him…how the *#%@ is he shutting me down?!” And Will did it without picking up his first foul until 55 seconds were left in the first half. And it happened a few feet in front of me with an unobstructed view: it was a phantom
Half Number Two: The Money Half
The Gators looked to blow the game open to start the second half, and were well on their way with 6 quick unanswered points. The reason we got those 6 fast points was that we stopped trying to face up their longer players in the paint and instead went around them. They got 4 of those points right back because we tried facing them up again and they blocked them all. A 3-ball and a pass out of bounds got all 6 of them back and ignited the ‘Cats faithful. But a DFS trey returned order to the Gators’ bench. The ensuing Patric Young dunk pushed the lead to 15 and goosed the Florida crowd. When Will Yeguete forced a tie-up with the arrow pointing to Florida, Patric Young did a Tebow-esque walk down the court, shouting to the heavens and pumping the guns, igniting the Gator crowd to its highest point of the afternoon to that point.
Play slowed down, which Coach Donovan credited for heavily influencing the ebb of the Gator’s game in the second half. The Kentucky faithful kept waiting for it. The Florida faithful kept bracing for it. The inevitable Kentucky run to make it a ball game again. Like they did early in the second half in Gainesville just a week ago. Like they have made in so many games this year. The 16:00 minute mark went by. Then the 14:00 mark. Eleven minutes to go….nine…and finally it came. The Gators got into a bit of a funk offensively and could not get out of their own way on defense. Billy called a timeout amidst the run, which has historically spelled an immediate turnaround on the court this season. But the next possession was a disaster.
Kentucky cut it to 6. And the Dome became deafening. Then they cut it to 4 and the Dome exploded.
Then Billy called another timeout.
The Gators got two possessions to follow but could not make their shots fall. Billy took extra time during the next TV timeout to ask the officials exactly how it was that Kentucky was suddenly getting away with what they were during this run. When they had not been getting away with it during the earlier parts of the game. It was no coincidence that it coincided with their comeback on their offensive end. Nor on their defensive end.
Kentucky cut it to 2.
Another Florida brick. Another foul called on Florida on the other end. A free throw cut it to 1.
Florida was in trouble. Or so everyone thought. They needed something. Desperately.
Then Michael Frazier II checked back into the game. A dramatic 3 stopped the bleeding. Then he grabbed a rebound. This woke up Wilbekin who took care of business with a drive to the glass. Lead was back to 6 with just under 5 to go.
Now Kentucky was in trouble. Or so everyone thought. That’s how fast things can change against such a complete team as Florida. You have to attend to every element of the game, every inch of the court to beat this Florida team. And when you do, they are not going to give it to you. You must take it.
In The Clutch
After another phantom foul let UK the lead to 4 just outside the 3-minute mark, crunch time had arrived. Which team would come through in the clutch? The lead was a deuce with under two minutes to go. Patric Young responded with a bucket. A crack of breathing room. A UK trey cut it back to 1 and then the Gators fumbled the next possession away. UK carried it over the timeline with exactly one minute to go and ‘Catlanta was on fire. Would the Gators come through on defense, or would they have to come back down the court and come through on offense?
Patric Young answered the call again with a blocked shot, but it rolled out of bounds to Kentucky with 45.8 seconds left and plenty of time on the shot clock. This is big boy basketball right here.
The defense rose to the occasion once again, forcing a bad shot and grabbing a hotly-contested 50/50 rebound (compliments of Dorian Finney-Smith). Then Kentucky hip-checked Scottie Wilbekin into press row through the referee. Somehow that only earned Scottie a 1-and-1. Apparently a flagrant foul would have required a call to Atlanta SVU. Scottie bricked it. That one was shocking. But the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year skied between two UK defenders and grabbed the rebound and then went to the line himself. Another brick. That one was expected. The onus was back on the defense, only this time the offense would have no time to get it back if Kentucky scored. When Kentucky called timeout, there were only 14 seconds left on the clock.
And once again, the best defense in the country had to answer the bell. And once again it was up to the task. It was immediately apparent on the in-bound that Kentucky was going to drive to the rim, wait for the obligatory foul call and try to win it at the stripe, where they had been almost perfect for the game. The Gators immediately recognized it and sealed the ball handlers. Scottie and MF2 executed a quick switch, forced a tricky pass and not only denied the drive but forced the sure-footed, sure-handed James Young so far out of his flight plan that his legs and torso experienced a dropped call. He went to the ground like a sack of Kentucky bluegrass seed and the Gator boys hit the deck after the ball.
Game over. Gators win again. The building is once again The Florida Dome. Gators are champions again.
How Did That Just Happen?
I did not recount that virtual play-by-play (or as it felt like in the heat of the very physical battle, the blow-by-blow) to recap the game in case you missed or forgot it. Rather, it was to help you re-live the drama of the final moments and more importantly the sheer impossibility that Florida would come out of this last minute fracas on top. As I sat watching the team at center court, decked in their championship swag, hoisting the tourney trophy overhead, I wondered if the confetti was getting in my eyes. Could that really be Florida up there on the victors’ platform?
I rubbed the orbs. Took a good squint. Yep, it was them.
How the heck did that just happen?
Patric Young said it happened because they practice that decisive last-possession defensive quick switch every single day of practice, all year long. They did it by doing it already. Again and again. They did it by having every possible game scenario prepped and ready to answer whenever it comes up.
Coach Donovan said it happened because the team has learned to put everything behind them. No matter what negative or positive thing happens in a game or a season, they are focused on the very next game, the very next play, the very next second. Billy told us that’s why Scottie and Dorian did not come out of that final timeout with their heads hung low, thinking about their bricked free throws that would have made it impossible to lose on a final shot from the field. They were thinking about the next thing. Billy said they won the game because of Scottie’s on-ball defense on the final play. He cut off two moves for the lane and forced the unwanted pass that led to James Young doing his Pete Rose baseball slide across the court.
But Patric and Billy were talking on a micro level. On a basketball court level. That’s not what was running through any of our minds when we wondered “How did that just happen?
The real question is on the macro level. It is on a grand scale. Heck, it is almost on a metaphysical plane. How did it really happen?
It happened because of a measure of ignorance, if you will. Something the team just does not know. Something they seem incapable of learning. And at this point in the season we must assume that this team must be simply pig-headed. No matter how many times or how many different people and teams have tried to teach them this year, this team just doesn’t get it.
They simply do not know how to lose.
Every year you have a bevy of teams that demonstrate that they just haven’t learned how to win. They are talented – perhaps even ultra-talented like the Kentucky team today. They may win some games. They may win a lot of games. But when the game is tight and it comes down to cases, there is a process, or many processes that teams must enable, activate, manipulate and complete in order to win. And they also must have a team communication and an innate feel for what and when to do something when that process must be improvised upon. Most teams just don’t have that. Some teams do. A number of teams each year just know how to win. They always find that process in the crunch and execute it to the victory. Even when they fail to execute it fully, they figure out on the fly just what it takes to squeeze by. To survive. To win.
This Florida team knows how to win. But they have taken this dynamic a step further. A critical step further. This team does not know how to lose.
A common axiom around the Florida athletics department is that a team that will not be beaten, cannot be beaten. This year, Billy’s squad doesn’t have to worry about deconstructing that riddle. They don’t even know how to be beaten.
And so far this season, at least since November was two days in the rear view mirror, nobody else in the country knows how to beat them, either.
Final Thoughts: Looking Ahead
There were two things that this game epitomized for this team that was missing last year. First of course is the ability to win the close game. They were winless in close games last year. This year they came just the slightest of margins away from going undefeated in close games. And they had a lot of them.
The second thing that this game demonstrated was Florida’s ability to win a game late when the opponent has made a furious comeback and has every ounce of momentum and confidence in their pockets. Last year, Florida loses this game. Two years ago, three years ago – every one of the 3-straight Elite Eight Florida teams – loses this game. This team not only did not lose, but when it there was 14 seconds left, clinging to a 1-point lead, with Kentucky attacking the basket with everything on their side of the ledger, this Gator team was 100% fully confident they would win.
The next tournament is always a mystery, but there is no greater strength to carry into the big dance than to be able to put everything behind them and focus on the next thing. To execute that process to victory. To have all the bases prepped and covered for any scenario.
And it sure does help when you have absolutely no idea how to lose.