John Clay

Cats knew ‘we needed to fight’ and they delivered against Gators

Make all over Malik Monk’s monster second half, he deserves it.

Save your pennies for Bam Adebayo’s new diet book on how better eating leads to better rebounding, he deserves it.

Shower your love on the spectacular one-two punch that helped home-standing Kentucky overcome (a) the absence of point guard De’Aaron Fox and (b) a 12-point first-half deficit to wrestle the SEC’s top spot away from Florida 76-66 on Saturday.

Just make sure and save some praise for the real reason behind such a confidence-building victory at a time of year when it’s important to build some confidence.

“The biggest thing this team did,” said UK Coach John Calipari afterward, “is they fought in the second half.”

You know, fight, fight, fight for the Blue and White.

That’s all John Calipari wants. He wants to win, of course, and he wants to hug his guys in the NBA green room after they’ve been drafted, and despite what you might think he also likes the feel of that national championship ring on his finger. As a fighter himself, however, Calipari wants nothing more than to be able so say his team fought.

This team in this season, however, Kentucky has overwhelmed teams for victories and squeezed by teams for victories and maybe benefited from a lucky bounce for victories, but not often could you say that it fought for a victory.

Saturday, Kentucky outfought Florida for the victory. Simple as that.

You think after three points and five turnovers in the first half, the mighty Monk wasn’t fighting to go absolutely nuts in the second half on the way to a ridiculous 30 points in a 33-point game?

“I knew I just had to attack,” the freshman with that wide grin said afterward.

You think after being destroyed on the boards (54-29) in that embarrassing (88-66) loss at Florida on Feb. 4, the Cats didn’t fight for the right to flip that glass-top table (48-30) on the Gators in Lexington?

“I’ve got more energy,” said Adebayo, the new King of the Boards who credited his second consecutive 15-rebound game to giving up fried foods for a healthier lifestyle. “I’m lighter on my feet.”

Three weeks ago in Gainesville, Fla., the Cats got knocked off their feet. Florida was clearly the better and more aggressive team that night before an ESPN GameDay crowd in the Sunshine State. Since then, Coach Mike White might have lost his starting center, John Egbunu, for the season to a torn ACL, but the Gators were still moving right along, winning nine straight.

Then by game time, UK was suddenly without Fox, its golden flash of a point guard, to a bruised knee suffered Tuesday at Missouri. Then the Cats fell behind 18-6. And shot 28.6 percent in the first half. And committed 12 turnovers. And somehow managed to be tied 28-28 at the half.

“That means you’re fighting,” Calipari said. “That means you’re giving yourself a chance to win.”

The 50-50 balls Florida chased down at the O’Connell Center, Kentucky chased those down this time. The quick responses the Gators produced in their double-digit rout, the Cats produced those Saturday. And just as Florida played off its enthusiastic crowd three weeks ago, Kentucky got a charge from the rockin’ Rupp Arena crowd — sixth-largest in building history at 24,431 — on Saturday.

“We knew that we needed to fight,” said senior guard Dominique Hawkins, who in Fox’s absence logged a career-high 37 minutes. “I felt like we didn’t fight as much in Gainesville than in Lexington. We definitely talked to each other in huddles and said we need to get stops and communicate on defense and continue to fight.”

Exactly one week ago, I wrote that despite Kentucky winning 82-77, the fact that the Cats couldn’t dominate the Dawgs when Georgia was missing star forward Yante Maten was not a good sign for Calipari’s club moving forward.

That Kentucky could fight back and snap Florida’s nine-game win streak without the point guard that makes the Cats go is a very good sign indeed.

Fight on.

Next game

Vanderbilt at No. 11 Kentucky

9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)

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