GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kentucky's leading scorer, Jodie Meeks, surprised Florida freshman Ray Shipman with a comment early in the second half here Saturday.
"We (were) at the free-throw line and Meeks was like, 'My coach just told me not to shoot the ball anymore,' " Shipman told The Miami Herald after the game. "I was like, 'Your coach told you not to shoot anymore?' "
UK Coach Billy Gillispie had reason to holster his team's leading gun. The Cats were getting great mileage out of big man Patrick Patterson attacking Florida's less-than-imposing front line.
Plus, desperate times call for desperate measures.
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But it didn't work on this bad day to be on the NCAA Tournament metaphorical bubble.
Neither of these so-called bubble teams, Kentucky nor Florida, distinguished themselves. But one team had to win — or score more points — and it was Florida, 60-53.
Kentucky fell to 19-12 overall and 8-8 in the Southeastern Conference. The latter put UK with the fourth seed in next week's SEC Tournament. The former seemingly makes winning the SEC Tournament the Cats' only chance of getting an NCAA Tournament bid.
Florida improved to 22-9 overall and 9-7 in the SEC.
If the plan was to go to Patterson, Kentucky executed well in the first half. He scored 14 of UK's 22 first-half points and should have had more. He missed at least three point-blank layups.
"It was great," Patterson said of how UK put in motion the game plan. "We were able to execute. I was just not able to finish that well around the rim."
The big man's play kept Kentucky competitive. Florida came out hot and appeared poised to break the game open. The Gators made their first four three-point shots. Senior Walter Hodge, who led the Gators on Senior Day with 18 points (10 above his average), pushed the Florida lead to its first-half zenith, 18-8, with a three-pointer at the 12:20 mark.
"I told those guys find me early so I can get in a rhythm," said Hodge, who UK fans will recall got ejected in the teams' first game for stepping on Perry Stevenson. "The guys did a great job finding me for points and I started hot."
The game changed in the second half. Florida collapsed its zone on Patterson. With Meeks not shooting much (two shots in the final 10 minutes), Florida limited Patterson to one second-half shot and two points on free throws.
"They just sagged down," said Patterson, who noted how the Gators dared Stevenson to shoot from the foul line area. "We tried to run plays, but there was always a defender there (in the low post). (Stevenson) had it a couple times. I think he hesitated."
Despite a horrible assist-to-turnover ratio of 7-to-23, Kentucky had a chance to pull out an improbable victory. Back-to-back baskets by Stevenson and Ramon Harris (part of his 14 points, a career-high against an SEC team) closed the Cats to within five, 51-46. More than five minutes remained.
Freshman Erving Walker hit a three-pointer, which continued Florida's knack for making key plays at important moments.
Down the stretch, the Gators outperformed Kentucky.
"I thought we competed really, really, really hard," Gillispie said. "I love the way they competed and fought. We just didn't execute well enough to win. ... We just didn't execute well enough in the last four or five minutes to get the right kind of shots and the right kind of stops."
With the lead down to 54-48, Hodge tapped the ball away from Galloway. In the attempt to retrieve the ball, Hodge directed it toward the sideline. Both coaches believed the ball hit referee Anthony Jordan and stayed in bounds.
Somehow, Hodge gathered the ball, walked a tightrope down the sideline and sped to a layup with 3:45 left.
Asked if the ball went out of bounds, a smiling Hodge said, "No.
"It was close. A half inch probably."
As this season unraveled down the stretch (the loss was UK's fourth straight and eighth in the last 11 games), the Cats wobbled in the final minutes.
After calling a timeout with 3:23 left (and 17 seconds on the shot clock), Kentucky had to settle for Meeks' desperation three-point throw in a vain attempt to beat the shot clock.
UK's next possession ended when Michael Porter threw a pass for an unsuspecting Meeks. The ball went out of bounds.