John Clay

Kentucky basketball needs a good win against a good opponent. Florida is its next chance.

Is the third time the charm?

Take a trip in the way-back machine and return to Dec. 3 when the audacious freshman Lonzo Ball and the UCLA Bruins invaded Rupp Arena and handed John Calipari’s young Cats a rare Rupp Arena loss, 97-92. That was the first opportunity lost.

Now spring forward to Jan. 28 and the one-day, TV-orchestrated SEC/Big 12 Challenge when the Kansas Jayhawks stuck Kentucky with its second home loss of the season, prevailing 79-73. That was the second opportunity lost.

Now comes the third opportunity for Calipari’s team to register a home victory against a legitimate, ranked foe. No. 13 Florida, which shares the SEC lead with Kentucky, visits Lexington for a 2 p.m. showdown with the Cats on Saturday.

The Gators have won nine straight, seven of those by double digits, and one of those by a whopping 22 points over Kentucky in Gainesville’s renovated O’Connell Center on Feb. 4. The last two in the streak have come without starting center John Egbunu, who suffered a season-ending ACL tear during Florida’s 114-95 thumping of Auburn.

Even without Egbunu, the Gators are the real deal. They proved that again Tuesday night, handling a South Carolina team that desperately needed a win to crawl back into conference race contention. Instead, Florida’s KeVaughn Allen scored 26 points, South Carolina shot just 39.3 percent and Mike White’s club improved to 13-2 in league play.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is trying to work its way back to being the big deal it was in late November/early December when it owned the nation’s No. 1 ranking and a prominent spot among teams considered worthy of climbing the ladder on the final Monday night of the season.

That was before the loss to UCLA, the loss at Louisville, the home loss to Kansas, the unexpected loss at Tennessee and the surprise spanking at Florida.

True, point guard De’Aaron Fox was returning from an illness when UK took the floor in Gainesville, but the Cats were destroyed on the boards — Florida won the glass 54-29 — shot just 37.7 percent and committed six more turnovers (13) than assists (seven).

The Cats have won five straight since, but have they improved? They muddled though a home win over awful LSU, squeezed out a victory at Alabama, appeared back on track when trouncing Tennessee, then won a pair of mixed-bag road games at Georgia and Missouri.

Last Saturday in Athens, Kentucky failed to go for the jugular when Georgia star Yante Maten suffered an early knee injury, but did make 17 straight free throws down the stretch to prevail 82-77.

On Tuesday, the Cats struggled to break free from 2-12 Missouri, but did get a Bam-tastic performance from freshman center Bam Adebayo, who scored 22 points and yanked down 15 rebounds in a 72-62 win.

“We’ve got to start getting better,” said Calipari in Tuesday’s postgame news conference.

Saturday is the acid test. Florida is legit good, but the Cats are at home. The regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in Nashville are on the line. So, too, is this worrisome stat: Kentucky is 1-4 against teams currently ranked in the Top 25 — a win over now No. 8 North Carolina; losses to No. 3 Kansas, No. 5 UCLA, No. 7 Louisville and the 13th-ranked Gators.

Not to overuse the theme, but the clock is ticking. Kentucky needs a good win against a good opponent to build confidence toward March.

Could the third time at home be the charm?

Next game

No. 13 Florida at No. 11 Kentucky

2 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)

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