In a season of inconsistency, one constant continued Saturday night: Kentucky again showed its age (or lack thereof).
Florida outplayed UK down the stretch to win 66-64.
“Something we’ve been struggling with, obviously, lately is toughness down the stretch and executing,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said. “That comes with us being a young team, but that’s no excuse.”
But it is reality.
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With another in what figures to be a long season of games decided in the final minutes, No. 18 Kentucky’s historically young team scored only two baskets in the final 5:37. And one of those was a fluke banked three-pointer by Kevin Knox from near the top of the key.
That shot reduced UK’s deficit to 64-61 with 32.5 seconds left. But by then, a 56-53 Kentucky lead with less than five minutes left had already become a 64-58 deficit inside the final minute.
“We didn’t make the smartest plays on offense,” Nick Richards said. “And you can say that’s why we lost.”
A Quade Green pass too far in front of Hamidou Diallo with UK down 56-53 was particularly stinging.
But Kentucky did not submit meekly.
After Jalen Hudson made two free throws to make it 66-61, Wenyen Gabriel hit a three-pointer from the left corner with 26.2 seconds left.
Keith Stone opened the door for Kentucky by missing the front end of a one-and-one with 19.9 seconds left.
But Florida blocked two Kentucky shots to tie it. Egor Koulechov blocked Green’s driving attempt out of bounds. On the subsequent possession, PJ Washington got spun around to the floor by Hudson. Boos greeted the non-call.
“I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, he got fouled,’” Gabriel said. “But I can’t really control officiating. So I’m not going to talk much about that.”
Kentucky’s third chance to tie it was not a charm. Chris Chiozza intercepted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s desperation inbounds pass and flung the ball down court to eat up the final two seconds.
“I haven’t watched the tape, but Quade drove and got knocked,” UK Coach John Calipari said. “I don’t know if that was a foul or not, but we’ll see. But at the end of the day, we had our chances, and I love the fact that we fought.”
Hudson saw experience as the difference. Florida started a graduate student, a senior, two juniors and a sophomore.
“They made some critical mistakes in the end,” Hudson said. “I don’t know if it was lack of experience or just not playing it correctly. I feel like we were so much more poised than they were. …
“I feel like we were taking better shots, even though we missed a lot of our threes (and) a lot of shots that we normally make. I just really feel like our experience helped. Maybe that was just in my mind because we were the older team and I just felt more experienced.”
Kentucky fell to 14-5 overall and 4-3 in the Southeastern Conference.
Florida improved to a league-leading 6-1 in the SEC and 14-5 overall.
As expected, Kentucky used its distinct size advantage. Florida, which has four “bigs” injured or unavailable, lost the rebounding battle 49-38. UK also enjoyed a 38-26 advantage in points from the paint.
Kentucky also got a break when Florida made only six of 30 three-point shots, the 20-percent accuracy the third-worst of the season for the Gators.
“That’s what we wanted to do,” Killeya-Jones said. “We knew if we came into the game and held their threes to a reasonable number, we’d be in good position to win. And we did that. We were in position to win, and we didn’t execute down the stretch.”
For the sixth time this season, Kentucky trailed at halftime. KeVaughn Allen hit a contested flip shot and bounced around the rim and in with seven seconds left to give Florida a 33-31 lead at intermission.
Kentucky’s intent to exploit Florida’s depleted front line was obvious throughout the first half. Only six of UK’s 32 first-half shots were from three-point range. That the Cats missed all six attempts, thus putting the 1,031-game streak of threes in jeopardy, surely caused fretting.
But Kentucky made up for the misses by keeping Florida’s high-powered three-point attack in check. The Gators made only three of 13 shots from beyond the arc in the first half.
Kentucky stayed close because of a 22-10 advantage in points from the paint.
Gabriel set the tone. Previously told to emulate Derek Willis, the three-point shooting forward of the last two seasons, Gabriel went to work in the post. He scored seven points in 62 seconds. That outburst, which more than doubled the three points he scored at South Carolina on Tuesday, put UK ahead 15-13.
Florida countered by putting Koulechov on Gabriel, who did not score the rest of the half.
A putback dunk by Jarred Vanderbilt, which sparked an eruption of cheers, came on the next possession.
Later, Vanderbilt began a 7-0 run that gave Kentucky its largest lead (28-20) in memorable fashion. He driving layup attempt bounced off the top of the backboard and fell into the basket. This caused more rapturous applause.
The good times did not last. Kentucky did not make a basket in the final 5:08. Florida closed out the half on a 13-3 run to lead at the break.
Florida found the range on its three-point shooting early in the second half. Threes by Hudson and Allen put the Gators ahead 45-37. That prompted a UK timeout with 15:24 left.
UK Coach John Calipari made four substitutions: Gabriel, Washington, Green and Killeya-Jones replaced Vanderbilt, Knox, Richards and Hamidou Diallo.
The mass substitution did not bring immediate dividends. Gabriel shuffled his feet in the post, ending the first possession with a walking violation.
But soon enough the subs re-asserted the advantage UK enjoyed in size. A dunk by Washington followed by a pair of putbacks by Killeya-Jones narrowed the deficit to 45-43.
Meanwhile, Florida called time with 11:46 left, perhaps to ponder its 5-for-22 three-point shooting to that point.
Then, for a second straight game, Kentucky kept its streak of making three-point shots alive inside the final 10 minutes.
Diallo hit from the left corner with 8:08 left. That made UK 1-for-9 from three-point range. More importantly, it narrowed Florida’s lead to 51-50.
Kentucky took a 53-51 lead on Gilgeous-Alexander’s fast-break layup with 5:37 left. His three-pointer put the Cats ahead 56-53 going into the decisive final five minutes.
Mississippi State at No. 18 Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)