Date story was published: Monday, February 13, 1984
Good thing it wasn't boxing, where you get points for aggression. Give the Florida Gators three gumption-inspired markers, and they -- gulp, gasp, swallow -- sweep the mighty Wildcats. Beat 'em there, beat 'em here, 20 days apart. Unbelievable.
Last night, trying hard wasn't enough. Not quite. In losing 67-65, however, the Gators revealed much about themselves, even more about Kentucky. Florida, lately the league's throw rug, took the Southeastern Conference's prohibitive favorite to the buzzer and nearly beyond. In Rupp Arena.
"Used to be," Sam Bowie said, "anytime Florida came in here you'd figure on chalking one up in the win column." Used to be. But last night's chalking was done with shaky hand and bated breath. For the Wildcats, it was that scary.
"They were playing hard, playing tough," said Dicky Beal, speaking of the Gators. "I can't say enough about 'em. That team . . . that team's got a lot of guts."
For 35 of the game's 40 minutes, the Gators ran UK into the floorboards. In the first half, UF's Eugene McDowell stole a pass, drove for the basket, missed a layup, rebounded, missed another. Six seconds after the whole bit began, Andrew Moten ended it with a follow shot. And there was still only one Wildcat there to challenge.
Another example? Try the second half. The Gators, after seeing a four-point lead become a five-point deficit, nonetheless find within themselves the drive to push on. They rebound a Wildcat miss, a rarity this half, and fly out on the break five abreast. UK has one man back. That man, Beal, kicks the ball out of bounds. Still, the sequence sings.
"They really took it to us," Beal said. "You could see it in their young guys' faces. When we went up by five, I was sure we had 'em. But they kept coming."
Yes. In the end, failures of the flesh cost Florida an astonishing victory. The Gators missed 17 of 28 second-half shots, including Moten's prayerful 22- footer at 0:02; the Wildcats, meanwhile, made 16 of 21. But ponder the numbers -- UK hits 66 percent for the game, UF 42.2 -- and try to reconcile that imbalance with the setting and the score.
Impossible, you say? Nonsense. The Gators simply outhustled UK. Skilled as the Wildcats' bodies are, their minds tend to drift. Not for long, certainly. Indeed, had Kentucky strung four listless minutes end-to-end last night, they'd surely have lost.
So it wasn't as if Kentucky loafed. It was more like . . . meandering. How else to explain 21 turnovers? How else to explain those last 90 seconds, in which the Wildcats came within Moten's miss of making an overtime from a five- point lead. How else to explain Joe Hall calling time after his team had just outscored the Gators 8-0?
The score was 51-47, UK; 9:43 remained. James Blackmon had capped an eight- point burst with a fast-break basket. The crowd was afire. Florida seemed as near to collapse as it was to get. Then Kenny Walker fouled Ronnie Williams. Two-shot foul. Then UK, inexplicably, took timeout.
"I can't remember what happened exactly," said Beal, not wishing to ruffle feathers. "But I do remember I thought we were on 'em then. We had momentum."
But Florida righted itself. Williams hit his foul shots, and Kentucky's lead would swell by only one point, from four to five, the rest of the way. Maybe the timeout didn't matter. Maybe the Gators would've steadied anyway. Maybe.
"Me, I'll take a win any way I can get it," said Melvin Turpin. "I know we're still making a few mistakes, but we've got time to correct that before the NCAA. We've got time."
That, indisputably, is true. But the nagging question about these Wildcats concerns those aforementioned lapses. This isn't a young team, and Lord knows it isn't one barren of talent. Given that, why do the Wildcats tighten up so against the press? Why the turnovers? Why let a Florida up for air?
"We're making turnovers in so many different ways," Hall said. "They're coming from everywhere. Against the press, it's almost like a psychosis, a mental block. We're not being poised. We're panicking in certain situations."
And it's not just one guy. Every Wildcat who played last night committed a turnover. Roger Harden made three in four minutes, Bowie five in 30. Florida, to contrast, had but 11 turnovers. Florida, to contrast, went the distance using three guards, all freshmen.
"We played relaxed and confidently," said Gator Coach Norm Sloan, sounding more than a little surprised. He wasn't alone. Yes, the Gators did beat UK in Gainesville, but that was in January. With Kentucky in January, all bets are off. But this was Rupp in February, and it figured to be different. And it almost wasn't. Credit effort.
"Yeah, I feel they outhustled us some," said Turpin, grudgingly. "They came in with an enthused attitude."
The Gators kept it throughout. Even in losing, they were aggressive. At times, Kentucky was, too. But as February gives way to March, the times they'll be a-changin', and hesitancy against the press won't win any NCAAs.