GAINESVILLE, Fla. – If preseason dreams of grandeur were to come true for the Kentucky Wildcats, their trip to Florida on Saturday was supposed to be just a footnote in the pursuit of much grander goals. Touted by some as a team that could 40-0, conference perfection would just be another notch in the belt for the preseason No. 1 team in the country.
On Saturday at the O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla., history unfolded alright, but the Cats were on the wrong side of it.
Thrashed by the current top team in the land, UK finished its regular season Saturday a disappointing 22-9. Florida, the much more experienced team, accomplished some of the history the Cats were aiming for at the beginning of the year, polishing off the first-ever 18-0 season in the Southeastern Conference with an 84-65 pummeling of No. 25/24 Kentucky.
“They’re going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. “They’re going to have their children and they’re going to come back here and they’re going to be remembered for what they’ve done. They’ve done something that’s not happened here before.”
UK was hoping to turn its season around by spoiling the Gators’ pursuit of perfection, but the Cats didn’t do themselves any favors by falling in a hole in the first half that proved to be too big to climb out of.
Florida went on a 24-6 run to take a commanding 44-22 lead and eventually a 49-28 halftime advantage, more than enough to sustain a 15-0 run by Kentucky that only temporarily made things interesting in the second half.
“No. 1 team in the country at home on Senior Night and a team that came out a little timid, you’re going to be down 20, 25 points,” John Calipari said. “Unfortunate, but (the Gators) are that good. If you don’t come and play, you’re going to get smashed.”
UK found itself in the hole with its fourth straight poor shooting performance. The Cats made just eight of their 23 field goals in the first half (34.8 percent), only five of the makes inside the arc.
Throw in the 11-first half turnovers and Florida’s gaudy shooting numbers – the Gators hit 61.5 percent of their attempts in the first 20 minutes, including 7 for 12 from behind the arc – and UK looked like it was about to get run out of the building.
“Their execution of their stuff, naturally being seniors, is going to be better than us,” Calipari said. “So they get better opportunities, which they did. That team shot 60 percent and 60 from the 3. That doesn’t happen to us. As young as we are, that doesn’t happen. And that’s what they did to us, not what we were.”
For the second time in a month, Kentucky-Florida was a lesson in what experience can do for a team and what youth can cost one.
“They play off of one another,” Calipari said of the savvy Florida veterans. “The best play of the game was Scott (Wilbekin) threw it to one of the bigs and the big threw it back to him and he scored. That’s just two guys knowing each other, playing for each other. For me that was the best play of the game. So that’s the kind of stuff we’re not getting right now. The great ones make a two-on-one look simple. We kind of make those look harder.”
UK stormed back to within six points in the second half, 53-47, when Dakari Johnson made a basket with 12:24 left. The Cats, briefly looking like the team they were expected to be, got back in it by pounding the ball inside and playing defense.
“It was fun coaching them when they were defending,” Coach Cal said. “And the guy that really did it was Alex (Poythress). See what Alex did is it wasn’t his man; he was coming from the weak side, and we don’t have a whole lot of guys doing that – like, anybody other than maybe Willie (Cauley-Stein). And guys don’t think it’s their responsibility. Those are the plays that change the game and gave us our chance to win the game.”
Ultimately the deficit was too much to overcome.
“Didn’t have enough to finish the game, especially against a team that good,” Calipari said of the comeback attempt. “You can’t spot a team 24 points and they’re the No. 1 team on Senior Night and think you’re going to win.”
Wilbekin, one of four Florida seniors honored in their final home game, put an end to the 15-0 Kentucky run with a game-turning 3-pointer. UK hung around for a little while longer, but Wilbekin’s deep 3 from the right elbow put the Gators up 77-60 with 2:44 to play, officially knocking the Cats out for good.
“He’s done it all year for them,” Calipari said. “That didn’t bother me.”
What bothered Coach Cal was how his team fought all the way back in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity only to revert back to old habits when the game got close. Calipari said his team took two of the worst shots it has taken all season when it had put itself in a position to make a game out of it with about eight minutes remaining.
“That’s what freshmen do,” Calipari said.
Freshman forward Julius Randle, who willed the Cats back into the game with 10 of his 16 points and seven of his 10 rebounds after halftime, described the momentum-ending 3 by Wilbekin as inexcusable.
“We played so hard and fought so hard to get it back, we can’t have that type of mental error,” Randle said.
Randle said he told himself to just “keep fighting” when his team found itself down by 22 on the road.
“The game’s not over,” Randle said. “There’s a lot of game to be played. Teams go on runs and we went on a run, cut it to six. We just got to keep fighting.”
But the chance for Kentucky to keep fighting for a season turnaround is becoming smaller and smaller with each loss. With just over a week until Selection Sunday, the doubts about a team so heralded in the preseason have never been bigger.
“I know a lot of people don’t believe that we can do it right now, but it’s on us right now,” said Johnson, who scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds in 20 minutes. “We just have to believe. If we believe, that’s all that matters.”
But believing and producing are two different things, Randle said, so the Cats need to get it together and do so fast.
“We all still believe, but there’s a point where, you know, we have to put it into action and I still think we will,” Randle said.
What makes him believe in this team, which has lost three of its last four games, are spurts like the second-half comeback on Saturday.
“The coaches and the players know that we can do it, but we just have to do it all the time,” Randle said. “We can’t do it when our backs (are) up against the wall. We’ve got to play like that all the time.”
Calipari is hoping the light will come on for his team at its final stop before the NCAA Tournament: the SEC Tournament next week in Atlanta. UK has already secured the No. 2 seed and will play the winner of the 7-10 seed matchup on Friday night.
“My whole vision of this team is we’re going to get it and it will start this week when we’re in our tournament,” Coach Cal said. “Let’s start down there. Let’s do what we’re doing 10 minutes in the game, 12 minutes – let’s do it for 40 minutes and all commit to it. And if we do, the light goes on, we like it, this is fun, let’s do this.”
It’s an ironic stance for a coach who has never been a fan of league tournaments, but at this stage in the season with the clocking nearing midnight, Calipari will take all the opportunities he can get to find the fuse and get that light switch to finally turn on.
“Normally (the conference tournament is) important for my teams for just playing seeding,” Calipari said. “For this team it’s important (because) we got to get the mojo going a little bit and we got to do it there.”