GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A possibly serious injury to Nerlens Noel put sobering perspective on Kentucky's 69-52 loss to Florida Tuesday night.
As expected, the No. 7 Gators outclassed Kentucky. But that seemed insignificant when Noel went down with 8:03 remaining.
The injury came on exactly the kind of hustle play UK Coach John Calipari had repeatedly called for this season. After Mike Rosario stole a Julius Mays pass intended for Noel at the top of the key, the UK big man chased down the Florida player for the block. Noel's left knee bent awkwardly and he crumpled to the floor, screaming in pain.
Noel, who left the O'Connell Center in a wheelchair, underwent tests at the University of Florida's Shands Hospital. He was expected to return to Lexington with the team, UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy said in a tweet.
"I'm physically sick right now for him ... ," the UK coach said. "What I'm hoping is it's not the extreme. I'm hoping it's some kind of twist. But, again, we don't know."
Rocking a moment earlier and much of the evening, the O'Connell Center went quiet at the sight of Noel under the basket. When several UK teammates helped him off the floor and toward the locker room, the crowd — including the Rowdy Reptiles student sections — clapped politely as he disappeared from view.
"I was scared," Rosario said. "I went up for the shot and here's this 7-footer coming after me.
"I hope he has a speedy recovery."
Florida took the lead for good midway through the first half and led by double digits the final 24:24. In snapping what Scottie Wilbekin had called an "embarrassing" five-game losing streak to Kentucky, the Gators improved to 20-3 overall, 10-1 in the Southeastern Conference and 12-0 at home.
The victory came within one point of matching Florida's largest margin over UK in a series that dates to 1927. Florida won by 18 in 1968 and 1987.
Mays said the Cats "played soft, scared. Guys played uptight. We let the pressure get to us."
Kentucky, which got back into the top 25 this week, fell to 17-7 overall and 8-3 in the SEC.
Kentucky did not succumb to what Calipari had called a Florida "blitzkrieg" as the game began. The Cats led 11-10 eight minutes into the game. A few moments later, Florida made three three-pointers within a 79-second span.
"Our whole thing was 'Let's guard the three,'" Calipari said. "We did to start the game. Then all of a sudden it was a three, a three, a three. It was all communication. What we had to do was talk and switch."
The Cats didn't get a player into double digits until Mays hit a three-pointer with 9:35 left. By then, Florida had four players with 10 or more points. The shot got UK within 57-45. The Cats got no closer.
Willie Cauley-Stein joined Mays with 10 points each to lead UK.
Wilbekin led Florida with 14 points. Patric Young, Casey Prather and Rosario added 12 each. Erik Murphy had 10.
"This was almost a game that exposed us a little bit physically," Calipari said. "And they did a good job of it."
Kentucky scored its second-fewest points of the season after scoring 70 or more in eight of the last nine games. The Cats scored 50 in the loss at Notre Dame.
Same old, same old for Florida, which entered the game with a defense ranked fourth nationally in points allowed (an average of 52.7).
In a game billed as a duel of backcourts, UK point guard Ryan Harrow did not score. Archie Goodwin had eight points and two of UK's four charges.
"Our guard play had to be spotless, and it wasn't," Calipari said. "And we had to make some shots, and we didn't."
UK's 42-percent shooting matched its third-worst accuracy of the season.
Mere numbers, it seemed, after watching Noel get hurt.
"Obviously, he's a big part of our team," Mays said of Noel, who leads the nation in blocks and ranks No. 24 in rebounding and No 40 in steals. "To see him go down, major or minor, it hurts us. A big-energy guy, it makes games different for us."
The prospect of playing without Noel was something Calipari did not want to contemplate. The basketball implications did not seem important.
"I'm not going to think of that," the UK coach said. "I'm worried about the kid right now."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com