What may have been an aberration entering Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY became a calling card for the No. 9/11 Florida Gators, which once again faltered down the stretch on the road and fell 61-57 to the Kentucky Wildcats.
Florida (24-6, 14-4 SEC) had a seven-point lead with under eight minutes to play but collapsed late. The Gators went scoreless over the final 7:36 of the game (0-for-11 from the field), committed five costly turnovers and allowed Kentucky (21-10, 12-6 SEC) to end the contest on an 11-0 run.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, won what head coach John Calipari termed a “one-game season” and may have put themselves back in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
UF is now just 8-48 all-time in Rupp Arena including 3-14 under head coach Billy Donovan, having not won in Lexington since Feb. 10, 2007.
The raucous Lexington crowd was in full effect at the start of the game as Kentucky scored six-straight points out of the gate and forced Donovan to call an early timeout just 48 seconds into the contest. The Wildcats concentrated on putting the ball in the paint, scoring five-straight field goals from the paint to take an early 11-2 lead.
“I was really, really annoyed to start both halves to be honest with you. I think our team knew that Kentucky was going to come in and be aggressive to start the game,” Donovan said. “We were just too loose.”
The Gators struggled to find the bottom of the net in the early going but nevertheless answered with a 9-0 run of their own to tie the game. Florida started 6-of-19 from the field and just 1-for-6 from beyond the arc.
With the half winding down, the Gators used a second 9-0 run – including five-straight points by senior guard Kenny Boynton – to take their first lead of the game at 29-24 with 4:01 left to play until the break.
UK responded immediately with a 6-0 run of its own to go back on top 30-29 and the teams finished out the half appropriately tied at 31.
Kentucky began the second half just like the first, registering two blocks and steal, scoring five-straight points and forcing Donovan to call a timeout just 1:27 into the latter portion of the game. UK outscored UF 11-3 to open the half and took an eight-point lead with 15:50 remaining.
Center Willie Cauley-Stein, who only played eight first-half minutes due to foul trouble and dominated Florida while in the game, was forced to leave the court after drawing his fourth foul with 13:42 left in the contest. The Gators immediately scored eight-straight points and took a 46-45 lead on the Wildcats with 11:26 to play.
Calipari decided to insert Cauley-Stein, who already had four blocks and six rebounds in just under 14 minutes, back into the game at that point, a move that appeared questionable but worked out in the long run as he wound up not fouling out.
Florida continued to build on its lead, going on an 11-3 run that included three triples (two from senior forward Erik Murphy) to take a 57-50 lead.
However, the Gators did not score again, going 0-for-11 from the field and committing five costly turnovers over the final 7:36 of the game.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, scored 11-straight points in that span and saw G Julius Mays hit two free throws with nine seconds remaining to put Kentucky up four and clinch the victory. UK had three players score in double figures led by G Archie Goodwin with 16 points. Mays and G Ryan Harrow each added 13, and F Alex Poythress scored nine to go along with a game-high 12 rebounds.
“The biggest problem for us at the end of the game is we [missed shots] and had pretty decent looks,” Donovan explained. “At some point, someone is going to have to step up and make a shot in those situations. I actually thought that defensively – maybe unlike some other games where we’ve broken down and given up way, way too many points to close out a game – I thought we defended pretty well.”
Murphy led Florida with a game-high 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting (3-of-6 from three) and team-high 11 boards. Junior C Patric Young scored 10 points but only grabbed two rebounds. Boynton scored nine points and missed a pull-up jumper late in the contest that would have otherwise tied the game.
Redshirt senior G Mike Rosario scored just six points and committed a game-high four turnovers including two costly ones late in the second half.
Luckily for the Gators, the team had already locked up the 2013 SEC regular season title and the No. 1 overall seed in the 2013 SEC Tournament.
“They have a terrific team. They’ve lost some road games, just like everybody else. But they’re still one of those teams that in my mind is odds on to have a chance to get to a Final Four,” Calipari said.
Florida will next be in action on Friday, March 16 at noon against a yet to be determined opponent. The game will air live on the SEC Network (check your local listings).