Saturday, March 10, 2012

Kentucky 74 - 71 Florida (SEC Tournament) (New Orleans) (No. 2,084)

Now THIS was one of the best games UK's been in all year, so let's skip the sociology and get straight to the basketball.

In their two prior match-ups this season, UK smoked Florida -- 78-58 in Lexington, and 74-59 in Gainesville. Based on those two results, a lot of UK fans (judging by our message board) decided that the Gators just weren't very good. But in fact, Kentucky was really fortunate in those games. For the year, Florida has made 38.7 percent of its three-point attempts -- the Gators are 21st in the country in that category. And they really depend on the three-point shot; only four teams shoot a higher percentage of three-point shots than Florida does. But in the two earlier games, UF was really cold from outside. They went 6-27 from three-point range in Lexington, and made only 6-22 three's in Gainesville. In other words, a team that normally makes 38.7 percent of its three-point shots made only 12-49 (24.4 percent) in their two games with Kentucky. This cannot all be attributed to UK's defense. Anyone who watched both games saw Florida miss a lot of open looks.

So they were due for a hot-shooting game against UK. During a mid-game interview today, Calipari said that he told the Cats that Florida would probably make the three-pointers they had missed in the other games. And he was right. Florida started hot and stayed hot, going 11-22 for three-point range for the game. I'm pretty sure that's the most three-point shots any team has hit against UK all year. What was even more impressive is that UK actually did a great job defending Kenny Boynton, Florida's best player. Boynton shoots 43.4 percent from three-point range and averages 16.7 points per game. But today he went 0-4 from three-point range and scored only two points. So the rest of the team, not counting Boynton, actually made 61.1 percent of their three's. If you can imagine a game where Lamb goes 0-4 from three-point range, but everyone else goes 11-18, then you can see what a hot streak the other Florida players were on. Special credit should go to Bradley Beal, a freshman who looked like the future NBA star he is supposed to be (4-7 from three-point range, 8-15 overall, 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists). Even more credit should go to Erik Murphy, a Junior version of Kyle Wiltjer who normally averages 10.2 points per game but who was spectacular today (4-4 from three-point range, 9-12 overall, 24 points).

For about the first 30 minutes of the game, the big story was that Florida's high-powered offense (Ken Pomeroy says they have the fourth-most efficient offense in the country) had finally kicked into gear against UK. The Gators led 39-32 before a late UK run put the Cats up 40-39 at the half. But then the Gators pulled back out into the lead, and they were up 56-51 with 10:21 left. Florida was also benefiting from UK's unusually poor three-point shooting. (The Cats went only 5-17 from three-point range.)

Up to this point, the game was worrying but not terrifying for any Kentucky fan familiar with the stats for the two teams. Kentucky was playing hard, Florida was just really hot, and it seemed likely that the Gators would cool off and UK would catch up. But the games are not played by numbers and dice. If UK were going to catch up, the Cats couldn't just wait for the numbers to even out. Someone had to do things in the real world to create new numbers.

Fortunately for us, Terrence Jones doesn't seem to be much of a numbers guy. Some people think that Jones loses interest at times, but I don't think that's his situation at all. I think he is an extremely emotional player who goes through major ups and downs, and these mood swings affect his play. But he hates to lose, and he often sparks the rest of the team when they're sluggish. Yesterday he scored nine points in a row in the second half of a close game against LSU. And today, he simply took over the game midway through the second half:

10:21 to go: JONES makes two FT's (UF 56, UK 53)
10:03: JONES gets defensive rebound
9:36: Kidd-Gilchrist makes a jump shot (UF 56, UK 55)
9:29: JONES steals the ball
9:25: Lamb makes a layup. Assist by JONES (UK 57, UF 56)
Florida calls time
9:09: Beal's shot blocked by Kidd-Gilchrist, Teague gets the rebound
8:49: Davis jump shot misses. JONES gets the rebound
8:35: JONES makes a three-pointer (UK 60, UF 56)
8:17: Patric Young misses a jumper for UF; JONES gets the rebound
7:43: Davis misses an awkward layup; JONES jams in the rebound (UK 62, UF 56)

So that's an 11-0 run by the Cats, and Terrence Jones was responsible for almost every point.

After this, Florida seemed to get discouraged. UK tacked on three more points with free-throws to lead 65-56, and then UK started to run out the clock. There was a sequence that lasted a minute and a half where UK held the ball without scoring because the Cats just kept getting the rebound. When MKG went to the line for two FT's with UK up 65-56 and only 4:17 left in the game, I thought the Cats were in good shape.

I still think that if MKG had made those two free throws to give UK an 11-point lead, Florida might have packed it in. The Gators had seemed listless for about five minutes, and seemed on the verge of giving up altogether. But MKG, who played a very solid game (see Boynton's numbers above), missed both FT's, and Murphy hit a three-pointer to make the score 65-59. Two missed jumpers (by Lamb and Jones) turned into two Murphy layups and suddenly the score was 65-63 with only 2:42 left.

So the Cats had to win the game one more time. And they did. A Teague free throw and Davis's put-back of Teague's missed FT made the score 68-63. But then Beal hit another three-pointer, and the score was 68-66 with 1:56 to go. Davis missed a shot, and Florida had a chance to tie or take the lead. But when Beal (finally) missed a three-pointer, JONES was there for another rebound. And when Lamb missed another jumper, JONES got the rebound and made both free throws to put UK up 70-66 with 35 seconds to go. Murphy scored one more time to make the score 70-68, but Teague and Lamb made four free throws in a row to put the game out of reach. Walker's three-pointer at the buzzer symbolized Florida's day; the Gators shot the lights out, but still couldn't win.

ABC named all five UK starters as its players of the game, and I can't blame them. Look at these numbers:

Lamb: 16 points
Jones: 15 points, 9 rebounds
Davis: 15 points, 12 rebounds
Teague: 15 points, 5 assists
Kidd-Gilchrist: 10 points, 8 rebounds

The only disappointment was that Miller and Wiltjer combined for only 20 minutes and 3 points. But UK really needed its best possible defensive team on the floor, and Florida wasn't playing the type of zone that would have been conducive to giving those guys more shots.

Afterward, Billy Donovan complained about the officiating; the Gators got only two free throws, while UK went 15-20 from the line. But there were only 23 fouls called in the whole game, and I thought the lack of fouls helped Florida more than UK. The Cats totally dominated Florida on the inside (UK had 36 rebounds to only 22 for Florida), and I thought the Cats would have scored more points down low if the Gators had not gotten away with a lot of shoving and pushing on the inside.

Meanwhile, Coach Cal said that his team has "swagger," which is good, but that he's worried about "arrogance," which is bad. I think that's his way of saying he doesn't like the way this team often falls behind at the beginning of games. I see his point -- in a single-elimination tournament, anything can happen and you don't want to waste any possessions. But UK has done pretty well in big games so far. And they could easily have given up today, because there were a number of reasons to believe this game meant a lot more to Florida than to the Cats. Instead, they fought back and gave their thousands of traveling fans an afternoon to remember. The Cats may lose if they run into another team that's red-hot from the outside. But I don't think they'll lose due to lack of effort.

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