Date story published: Sunday, February 5, 2006
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Kentucky hoped to make a statement at No. 8 Florida last night. That intended statement: Forget our stumbles earlier this season, we're back.
For a half, that message rang true. But in the second half, the UK message changed to: We're back ... to the drawing board.
Kentucky simply fell apart in the second half, falling 95-80. Gone in a blinding puff of bad shots, turnovers and poor defense was a season's best five-game winning streak.
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Rather than reassert itself in the Southeastern Conference race, UK equaled the most points surrendered in a regulation game in Tubby Smith's nine seasons and fell -- hard -- to third in the Eastern Division.
"I'm not surprised," Smith said of the stunning inconsistency of UK's play, "because I've seen it before."
Florida, which got career-high scoring from center Joakim Noah (26 points) and guard Taurean Green (29 points), improved to 20-2 overall and 6-2 in the SEC. A play UK calls "C," in which a big man sets a pick for a guard at the top of the key, literally made the Cats C-sick.
Again and again, Green came off a screen set by Florida's remarkably deep set of talented big men and either hit a jump shot, drove to a layup or fed a teammate for an open shot.
UK center Randolph Morris, who set a career high with six assists, gave Florida credit for making Kentucky prove it could stop the play.
"If it keeps working, I'll run it, too," he said.
Kentucky, which fell to 15-7 overall and 5-3 in the SEC, surrendered a season-high 56 second-half points (easily topping the previous high of 44 by Indiana).
"When you give up 95 points, you're not going to win many games," said Smith, whose Kentucky teams have given up that many points in a regulation game once: a 103-95 victory over Tennessee on Feb. 14, 2001.
For Kentucky to lead 41-39 at halftime, Joe Crawford (19 points) had to beat freshman David Huertas off the dribble and then hit a 15-footer over two more defenders (Noah and Chris Richard) with one second left.
The play typified a highly competitive half. UK and Florida exchanged the lead 14 times and competed through six ties in the opening half. Neither team led by more than five points.
Morris' passing was startling. Having not made an assist all season, he got five in the first half (or two more than his previous career high). None was prettier than the one that came with four minutes left. Trapped along the right baseline, he threw a bounce pass across the lane that found Rajon Rondo on the left baseline. Rondo's dunk -- part of his team-high 22 points -- put Kentucky ahead 34-32 with 3:59 left.
Of Kentucky's 15 first-half baskets, 12 came off assists.
Then in the second half, UK had only three assists and committed nine turnovers.
"You've got to maintain your composure and poise," Smith said. "I thought we really got rattled. They had another gear. They turned it on. Their players got after us defensively, and we had some bad decisions during that stretch."
UK got off to an encouraging start in the second half. The Cats scored the first four points -- capped by a Rondo steal and feed while falling down that netted a Patrick Sparks fast-break layup. That gave the Cats their largest lead, 45-39, with 19:26 left.
Florida roared back, scoring 11 straight points in a disastrous stretch of little more than two minutes. Green's pull-up three-pointer on the break fueled the run. Horford's post-up basket put the Gators ahead 46-45 with 18:20 left.
After Green hit a foul-line jumper, Noah blocked Sparks' ill-advised three-pointer. Smith benched Sparks.
That didn't help. Horford blocked Morris' post-up shot. Then Noah took a Green inbounds pass and dunked over Morris to put Florida ahead 50-45, sending the crowd into screams and UK into a timeout with 16:34 left.
"Once we got behind by five, we acted like we were down 15," Crawford said.
The Cats looked for Morris after the timeout, but Green stripped the big man of the ball. Florida got a tip-in from Noah to complete a 13-0 run that produced a 52-45 Florida lead.
For more than six minutes, UK got only two free throws. The Cats missed six shots and committed five turnovers.
Florida ran off an 18-1 run in that span to take its largest lead to that point, 57-46, with 14:03 left. The lead ballooned to as much as 22 as Florida scored the most points against a UK team since a 96-78 victory in 1968.
Kentucky had come back from double-digit deficits three times in the five-game win streak.
Florida kept the Cats behind by double digits the final 11:30.
In the final minute, the Rowdy Reptiles, the Gators' student section, added insult to UK's injury by chanting "N-I-T, N-I-T" and then "Just like last year," the former in reference to UK's post-season hopes and the latter a reminder of Florida's two victories over the Cats in 2004-05.