Florida didn’t handle its first national ranking very well, promptly getting blown out by archrival FSU at home, embarrassed by Loyola Chicago at home and then collapsing late against Clemson.
Looks like the Gators will get another shot.
Thanks to some gritty defense, bad shot selection by Kentucky and just enough offense, Mike White’s squad pulled off a 66-64 shocker over the Wildcats in Rupp Arena. It’s the first time Kentucky has lost at home to an unranked team since 2014, and their seventh home loss ever in John Calipari’s nine seasons. Conversely, the win vaults the Gators two games ahead of the Wildcats in the SEC standings and puts them a half game ahead of Auburn at the top of the conference mountain.
Florida started off with one of their patented cold stretches, and found themselves down 28-20 late left in the first half. But then they clamped down on defense. Kentucky went the remaining 5:08 of the half without a single bucket, mustering only three stray free throws in that stretch. Meanwhile, Kevarrius Hayes got loose for a dunk and then a layup to highlight a 9-0 spurt, and the Gators owned a 33-31 lead at the break.
The second half was more of the same, but the difference was that Florida led most of the way. Kentucky started lifting up some ill advised shots, and the Gators built a 45-37 lead on the strength of threes from Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen. But then Florida went cold again and allowed the Cats to climb back into it. The lead slowly shrunk until Kentucky finally retook it on a layup from Shai Gilgeous Alexander with six minutes left, at which point it felt like the Cats were going to figure out how to finish the deal. And that feeling only intensified when Egor Koulechov decided to pull up and shoot a three on a three on one breakaway two minutes later- which he missed, and Kentucky rebounded.
But Florida regrouped with a Chris Chiozza three, which kick started an 11-2 run that flung the Cats down on the mat. Of course, being a basketball game played in Rupp Arena, there was still some tension; a three from Kevin Knox and then a bank three from Wenyen Gabriel cut the lead down to 66-64 with :27 left on the clock, and after Keith Stone missed a free throw, Kentucky had the ball back with the chance to tie.
And Kentucky never got a shot off.
First, Koulechov stuffed Quade Green with six seconds to go. The Big Blue crowd screamed bloody murder over not getting a foul call when there wasn’t one (please, like Florida hasn’t been on the wrong end of literally hundreds of terrible calls in that arena through the years) but Koulechov’s block sent the ball out of bounds- which gave it back to Kentucky with two seconds to go and one more chance to tie or win. But Hayes turned into a defensive back- isn’t Florida DBU, after all?- and batted the inbounds pass to Chiozza, who picked it off and promptly rainbowed the ball down the court. And by the time the ball had landed, the clock had struck zero and the Gators had their second win in Rupp in the last five seasons.
Imagine that. A team that lost to Loyola Chicago and FSU at home managed to beat Gonzaga in Portland and Kentucky in Lexington. But that’s just this team in a nutshell: a bipolar bunch that’s a threat to blow the best teams in the nation out of the gym when they’re shooting well while simultaneously being highly susceptible to a first round 3-14 upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with really no gray area in between.
And Florida beat Kentucky despite playing like the latter.
I’m still not convinced that Florida is where it needs to be in order to make a serious run in March. The Gators shot just 33% from the field and 64% from the free throw line, and Stone’s late miss allowed Kentucky to have a chance whereas making both would have made it a two possession game. Florida also got outrebounded 49-38 due to their lack of depth inside, and a better team would have taken advantage of that more than the Wildcats did. The fact of the matter is, this is shaping up to be one of John Calipari’s worst teams at Kentucky.
But the bottom line is that Florida won a basketball game in Rupp Arena, which has been a house of horrors for everybody who sets foot inside. It’s a feat the Gators have accomplished ten times ever in 61 tries, and the last three times they did it, they made it to the Final Four. So while this team still has work to do, only the brave can pull off a win in Lexington- and when you combine the win with the fact that they didn’t even play that well, the Gators leave the Bluegrass State with as good a confidence booster to have moving forward as any team can ever have.