Minutes after Kentucky absorbed its most lopsided defeat of the regular season, PJ Washington spoke optimistically about the postseason.
“I feel we have a lot of stuff to work on,” he said after UK lost 80-67 at Florida on Saturday. “But we’re still in good position. I feel like if we work on these things and get better, we’ll make a deep run in March.”
UK Coach John Calipari tried to put the defeat in a similar context.
“I told them, ‘Learn from it. You’re young,’” he said.
The lesson Calipari said he wanted his players to learn sounded a lot like what Florida Coach Mike White said about the Gators two weeks earlier.
“Competitive spirit,” Calipari said. “If you don’t have competitive spirit, you will not advance in this game.”
Calipari said the Cats will have to learn that lesson to succeed at the next level.
“You either have a competitive spirit and you fight and you go after (it) and you play to win,” the UK coach said. “Or there’s no one that wants you on their (NBA) team because it’s not about shooting balls and fadeways. …
“We’re trying to bring it out of some of our guys, and get them out of worrying about how they’re playing, and get them to worry about how we’re playing. But it’s a process and it’s never-ending.”
The loss put in jeopardy Kentucky’s chances of getting a double-eye in the SEC Tournament (but Missouri’s defeat of Arkansas later Saturday rescued the Cats).
“If we play Thursday, it’s fine,” Calipari said before the Cats’ seeding was known. “I don’t really care. You know, I can’t stand (conference) tournaments anyway. I’m not a big proponent of playing three, four days in a row at the end of the year. …
“But our fans at Kentucky love this tournament. They love it, so we go and try to play as well as we can for our fans. But the only thing this (next) weekend is for is to prepare us for the (NCAA Tournament).”
When it was suggested that his freshmen might benefit from the experience of playing more games in the SEC Tournament, Calipari did not warm to the idea.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I still don’t like playing in conference tournaments. But it is what it is.”
Proud of Gabriel
Calipari suggested Wenyen Gabriel had a personal triumph in the game.
“I was really, really happy for Wenyen,” the UK coach said. “Wenyen was so bad in the first half. So scared.”
Gabriel took one shot in a scoreless 11 minutes in the first half. He did not grab a rebound. He had three points and four rebounds in the second half.
“All I’ve been talking about to these guys is you have to conquer yourself before you can conquer someone else,” Calipari said. “And what he did in the second half showed me he conquered himself. Literally, he couldn’t speak in the first half. I told him at halftime, either you get this or you’re going to change it. I told him after, I’m so proud of you.”
As Calipari saw it, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s five turnovers were more important than his team-high 17 points.
“Shai didn’t play well today …,” Calipari said. “And if he doesn’t play well, it’s tough on the rest of these guys because they’re counting on him to make the right plays.”
The loss at Florida dropped Kentucky’s record to 6-8 against opponents with a Ratings Percentage Index in the top 50 going into Saturday. The Gators were ranked No. 44 in the RPI.
UK is 1-5 against teams with a top-25 RPI, and 13-10 against teams that were within the top-100 RPI.
In both victories against Kentucky, Florida players cited experience as a factor. Jalen Hudson said that helped the Gators prevail in Rupp Arena.
And this time is was point guard Chris Chiozza.
“We knew it was a big game: Kentucky, noon game, CBS,” Chiozza said of the rematch. “There’s not much of a bigger stage than that. We didn’t let that stage be too much for us.”
Chiozza’s four assists made him the career leader for Florida. He increased his career total to 551. He had been tied with Erving Walker.
“I really forgot about it when the game started,” he said. “Then I passed to an open guy and he didn’t shoot it, and I thought, ‘Oh, I need to get one.’”
Chiozza’s first assist came with 6:05 left in the first half. Keith Stone hit a three-pointer.
“I felt a big relief,” Chiozza said. “I said, ‘Let’s go. We’re playing free now. We’re not worrying about anything.’”