John Clay

Not Kentucky’s best effort, but Cats win anyway — now that’s progress

Let’s cut to the chase and get to the crux of Kentucky’s 65-54 win over Florida here Saturday:

The seventh-ranked Wildcats strolled into Exactech Arena on the wings of a seven-game win streak and promptly started jacking up three-point shots — 14 in the first half; 11 of which they missed — which was not the smartest way to attack the shorter Florida Gators.

The Cats won anyway.

In all, John Calipari’s club fiddled for a good 30 minutes on the way to digging themselves an 11-point hole against a good team, with a good coach, on that good team’s home floor.

The Cats won anyway.

Bottom line: UK played with nowhere near the intensity it used to dispatch a top-10 team in Kansas last Saturday in Rupp Arena or the domination it displayed in routing a reeling Vanderbilt on Tuesday in Nashville.

The Cats won anyway.

And that’s the point of this particular victory, one in which the visitors suddenly caught fire to outscore the home team 33-12 over the final 12:32, including a game-changing 14-0 spurt that turned a 48-43 Florida lead into a 57-48 “Go Big Blue” chant inside the O’Connell Center.

Meaning: This Kentucky team no longer has to play its best basketball to beat a tough opponent on the road in a key conference game.

“It’s tougher on the head coach,” said Calipari afterward, when asked if his team got more out of Saturday’s struggle than the 35-point cakewalk on Tuesday night in Music City. On the inside, however, you had to think the head coach was harboring a bright grin. “We’re halfway up that hill.”

Halfway through Saturday, you were sure the Cats were on the way to its first loss since Jan. 5. A good defensive team, Florida held UK to 35.3-percent shooting from the floor. On the flip side, however, the Cats had played against its scouting report, failing to find PJ Washington, the 6-foot-8 sophomore who had scored 20-or-more points in each of the past three games.

To make matters worse, the first seven minutes of the second half, the team appeared to have already forgotten whatever message Calipari imparted during the intermission break. UK’s Reid Travis scored the first two points of the second half. Florida scored the next nine. Gators 42-31 with 13:56 left.

But then freshman big man EJ Montgomery came off the bench to grab an offensive rebound off a missed a free throw. That lit the fuse. Washington scored on a tip-in. Keldon Johnson nailed a three from the right corner. Washington scored inside after a perfect pin of his defender and entry pass from point guard Ashton Hagans. The train was rolling.

By the time Travis hit a pretty hook from the right baseline and Tyler Herro dead-centered a three with 2:50 left, the Florida fans had started heading for the exits while the (many) Kentucky fans in attendance were upgrading their seats.

“Even if we’re missing our shots, if we keep playing defense we’re good,” said Johnson, who was three of seven from the floor after missing five of his six shots in the first half.

To be sure, Florida was tripped up by its weakest link. The Gators have a hard time hitting the strike zone. Not consistently, anyway. They missed 24 of 33 shots in the second half. And Saturday was the seventh game in which they have scored 60 points or less. It was the second straight Saturday, after a 55-50 loss at TCU last week.

“It didn’t have anything to do with them,” said Florida freshman Keyonte Johnson afterward. “We’re the reason we lost this game.”

Perhaps. Or perhaps Kentucky’s defense played a role in Florida’s struggles at crunch time. This was the fourth straight game and sixth in the last seven in which UK held the opponent below 40 percent from the floor. It was also the Cats’ eighth straight win.

And this time, the Cats didn’t have to play all that well to get it.

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