John Clay: For 5:07, we saw the Cats we thought they'd be

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 8, 2014 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If John Calipari was hoping for the light to come on for his young basketball team, then Kentucky basketball is still facing a darkness on the edge of town.

All glory to the Gators. Florida manhandled Calipari's youngsters in the first half, then steadied themselves after a Kentucky second-half spurt to put away the visitors again, rolling to an 84-65 win at the O'Connell Center.

Florida wasn't losing this game. It was Senior Day for a team whose four seniors play such vital roles. Billy Donovan's club became the first SEC team in history to go 18-0.

It would have taken a Herculean effort to derail the Gators on this day, much less from a Kentucky team that has stumbled badly down the stretch.

For a brief moment, for a five-minute stretch, for as badly as Kentucky was dominated for the most part, there was a ray of light for the team in blue.

For five minutes and seven seconds of the second half, in the 31st game of a long season, the Cats played the way we had expected the Cats to play from the pre-season hype. For that 5:07, Kentucky outscored the No. 1 team in the country 15-0.

Afterward, Calipari gave credit to Alex Poythress for his defense, and surely there were different components to such an unexpected and sterling display of hoops success.

For my money, though, the reason the Cats were at their best was because their best player was at his best.

That would be Julius Randle, the freshman forward who was held scoreless until 2:28 remained in the first half. His team doubled-up on the scoreboard at 44-22, the double-double machine finally got going.

Randle drove past a double-team to score inside. With 1:39 left in the half, he scored again. With 47 seconds remaining, he scored his third basket of a half that ended with Florida romping 49-28.

Thirty eight seconds into the second half, Randle scored again, this time muscling his way to the basket on a drive. At the 15:10 mark, he scored off a rebound while being fouled, then made the free throw. At 13:36, he took a pass and forcefully scored on a reverse layup to cut the Florida lead to 53-45.

After Dakari Johnson made a hook shot to slice the Florida advantage to 53-47, the Gators' Scottie Wilbekin steadied the ship with a three-pointer and the home team was off and running again. And this time, Kentucky wasn't about to slow down the train.

But for that five-minute stretch, Randle was demanding and determined and UK was a better team for it.

It's hard to sustain that individual level of effort against a team as smart and resourceful as Florida, and it was not long before the Gators regained control.

Think about it: Kentucky had a 15-0 run and still lost the game by 19 points.

Go back to last summer when the experts were trumpeting Kentucky's freshman class and the holdouts were whispering that blending the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, with Randle might be easier said than done.

That has turned out to be true. It's not a matter of personal feelings or ball-hogging as it is a matter of space. Too many of Kentucky's players occupy the same space on the floor.

Randle hasn't developed a perimeter shot, so he wants the ball down low to operate. In an effort to use their size, the Harrisons are prone to drive. It hasn't been a recipe for success, especially late in the year, and it has exacerbated this team's other shortcomings, such as lack of quickness and youth.

If Calipari hasn't figured out how to make it work, it's not from a lack of trying. Again Saturday — bad hip or no bad hip — the Kentucky coach was both frantic and ferocious on the sideline. The only things lacking from his game were the technical fouls.

More than once, you could see Florida fans in the crowd nudging each other and grinning as they pointed at the Kentucky coach out on the floor, his arms in full windmill during some sort of strategic instruction.

"I don't know how we're going to get it going," said Randle, "but we've got to get it going."

For a while Saturday, the Cats found a way to get Randle going. If they have any chance of making a mark in the post-season, they have to find a way to make that happen again — only longer.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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