Photo slideshow: Cats close out regular season with tough loss at Florida
For Florida, it was Senior Day Saturday. For Kentucky, it was just another Freshman Day.
“We reverted,” UK Coach John Calipari said after Florida defeated his team 80-67. “This is how we played a month ago.”
Kentucky fell into a tie for fourth place in the Southeastern Conference and faced the prospect of not getting a double-bye in next week’s SEC Tournament before Missouri’s defeat of Arkansas clinched it for the Cats.
UK led for just 57 seconds Saturday. A season-low six assists shattered the burgeoning hope of the Cats emerging from their formative cocoon and becoming a beautiful butterfly.
“We didn’t pass today” Calipari said. “I don’t have any idea why we didn’t pass the ball to each other.”
Kentucky, 21-10 overall and 10-8 in the Southeastern Conference, saw its encouraging four-game winning streak come to a halt. The Cats had more than twice as many turnovers (13) as assists.
“C’mon,” Calipari said. “You can’t win playing that way.”
Florida, 20-11 overall and 11-7 in the SEC, became the second league team to defeat Kentucky twice this season. Tennessee did it earlier. Two SEC teams had not swept UK in the same season since Florida and Arkansas did it in 2014.
Only a couple of weeks ago, Florida was the struggling team. These two ships passing in the afternoon suggested how quickly momentum can build and dissipate.
“We’re playing our best basketball of the year,” Florida Coach Mike White said. “And I think the best way to continue doing so is to not rest on our laurels.”
With its three-point shooting warming up as the first half unfolded, Florida expanded its lead to as much as 17 points before leaving the floor with a 48-33 lead.
That matched UK’s largest halftime deficit of the season. The Cats also trailed by 15 — and by the exact same score — at halftime at West Virginia.
For a repeat of the memorable comeback in Morgantown, Kentucky needed to improve its defense and reduce its turnovers.
When asked if Florida’s 6-for-13 shooting on threes told the tale in the first half, Calipari balked. “It wasn’t that they were shooting threes,” he said. “We could not guard anybody. They were shooting lobs, dunks, layups.”
Florida made 56.3 percent of its shots in the first half. Florida simply outplayed UK in the first half. The Gators had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio (eight assists, four turnovers) while Kentucky had just the opposite (four assists, eight turnovers).
In a surprise, Florida outrebounded Kentucky 16-15. The undersized Gators equaled UK’s six offensive rebounds and out-scored the Cats in the paint 18-14.
UK fans looking for a reason to believe could take comfort in Florida’s history this season. The Gators had lost against Duke despite leading by 17 in the second half, to Clemson despite being half by 12 in the second half and to Georgia despite leading by 11 with 10:03 left.
Calipari opened the second half with arguably his team’s strongest lineup: Quade Green, PJ Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox.
The Cats seemed intent on belatedly trying to use their size advantage. “It wasn’t really too much post presence down there,” Washington said of UK’s offense in the first half.
But Vanderbilt and Washington picked up their third fouls inside the first two minutes and went to the bench.
Calipari called time with 17:19 after Jalen Hudson dunked on the fast break to put Florida ahead 56-39. That matched the Gators largest lead to that point.
Wenyen Gabriel, Nick Richards and Hamidou Diallo entered the game. UK also switched to a zone.
None of it made an immediate difference. Egor Koulechov hit a pair of three-pointers over the zone, the second putting Florida ahead 62-39. But the longterm effect helped Kentucky rally.
“Their zone changed the complexion of the game for a little bit,” White said.
Led by Washington, Kentucky threatened to get back in the game. His two post-up baskets brought UK within 64-48 at the second television timeout of the second half.
And in each of Florida’s 11 losses this season, the opponent outscored the Gators in the final 10 minutes.
Florida invited a Kentucky comeback with tentative play and turnovers against the zone. The Gators went scoreless for more than seven minutes, a span in which they missed 11 straight shots and committed two turnovers.
A driving layup by Gilgeous-Alexander reduced UK’s deficit to 65-56 with 6:48 left. That marked the first time UK had been within single digits of Florida since the 5:20 mark of the first half.
“I felt like we hadn’t scored in 29 minutes,” Jalen Hudson said. He stemmed Kentucky’s momentum with a three-pointer from the corner that rattled around the rim before dropping in. That put UK behind 68-56 with 6:17 left.
Within the next two minutes, UK trailed by 18.
“Really settled us,” White said of Hudson’s three-pointer.
Kentucky vs. TBD
3 p.m. Friday in SEC Tournament in St. Louis (ESPN); UK has a bye for the first two rounds