Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Florida 61 - 68 Kentucky (No. 2,163)

I don't think Kentucky has ever suffered in any SEC Gym the way that the Cats have suffered in the Stephen C. O'Connell Center since Billy Donovan came to Florida.  On February 18, 1998, the Cats went to Gainesville and drilled Florida 79-54 on their way to their seventh National Championship.  It was their fourth consecutive win at Florida.  Since then, the Cats have gone 5-11 in Gainesville.  In 2001, 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2014, UK lost its final game of the regular season in the O Center -- and that sort of thing always leaves a bad taste in your mouth.  Finally, in their last two trips to Florida, the Cats had lost by a total of 36 points -- I could barely watch either game.

Since 2004, the only two UK teams to win at Florida had featured John Wall and Anthony Davis, and neither of those guys was going to be in the line-up on Saturday night.  In fact, Trey Lyles wasn't even going to be there, as he was still out with an illness.  Still, for the first time since 2012 I actually tuned in to the Gainesville game with some hope.

And almost immediately watched the Cats get into trouble.  Florida is clearly down this year from its usual standards, but the Gators have some talent, and it was ESPN Gameday, and they were pumped up.  Games at the O Center always look like they're being played in some sort of pit, with fans hanging right on top of the players.  I don't know what it's like in real life, but it looks very intimidating on TV -- even more so when the home team has a 20-11 lead halfway through the first half.

Five minutes later, the Gators still led by eight -- 28 to 20 -- and the UF fans (excited, after a long football season, to see a Florida team in the lead in any sport) were louder than ever.  But Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Karl-Anthony Towns quickly put together a 6-0 run, and the Cats trailed only 30-28 at the half.  In that half, UK went 1-9 from three-point range, and only strong play from Towns (11 points) and Booker (8 points) had kept it close.

But UK had survived Florida's initial wave, and the Cats were ready for the second half.  Back and forth the teams went.  Many high-quality teams have a tendency to push the pace when they are faced with difficult competition, but the Cats seem to slow down and take their time after a team gets their attention.  After taking 9 three's in the first half, the Big Blue took only 5 three's in the second half, as they started working the ball inside over and over.  Florida was hampered by the loss of Michael Frazier, who had 10 points in the first half but was injured in the second.  Furthermore, the Cats were determined not to lose to three-point shots -- UK chased every shooter and held Florida to 6-21 from behind the arc for the game.  Billy Donovan, however, knows how to take what you give him, so the Gators spread the floor and kept dribbling past the UK players on mad dashes to the basket.  Florida went 18-28 from two-point range and became one of the few teams all year to score at least one point per possession against the Cats.

So back and forth the game went, with the crowd doing everything it could to stop the blue-clad Wildcats.  UK took a 45-44 lead with 12 minutes left, and then they spent the next 10 minutes of game time trying to grow that lead.  They never could grow it beyond five points, and they led by only 61 to 59 after Eli Carter hit a running layup for the Gators with 2:21 left in the game.  Soon thereafter Jon Horford was left alone under the basket, and Andrew Harrison fouled him to prevent an easy bucket.

Horford is an 83.9 percent free throw shooter on the year, but he missed both of these free throws, and the Cats had the lead and the ball.  UK held the ball for 30 seconds before Aaron Harrison missed a jumper -- and then WCS grabbed a huge rebound.  He missed a layup -- and this time Towns had the rebound, and he was fouled.  This was not the day to foul UK -- the Cats went 21-22 from the line, and Towns went 7-7 from the line by himself.  He made both of these, and UK led 63-59 with 1:03 left.

Back down the floor -- and back to Horford, who was open under the basket until Towns came swooping at him.  The Florida fans (and one official) thought that Towns had fouled Horford.  But a much wiser official pointed out that Horford had shuffled his feet, and awarded UK the ball.  Eleven seconds later, a free throw by Andrew Harrison put UK up 64-59.  Mercifully, Florida did not make any desperation three-pointers down the stretch, and the Cats had their first win in Gainesville in three years.

23-0.  10-0 in conference play.  8 games left.

The 2015 Cats now join the 1966 team (Rupp's Runts) as the only UK teams since 1954 to open the year by going 23-0.  Up next is a trip to Baton Rouge to play LSU, who report that this will be their first basketball sell-out since 2006.  The Tigers are 6-4 in the SEC, and this should be a very competitive game.

Let me make one final point.  On Saturday, Arizona took a record of 20-2 into Tempe, Ariz., where they lost to the 11-11 Arizona State Sun Devils.  Kansas took a record of 19-3 into Stillwater, Okla., where they blew a 30-16 lead and lost to an Oklahoma State team that was 5-5 in Big XII play before that game.  The point isn't that these teams aren't good -- they are really good.  The point is that winning conference road games is extraordinarily difficult, and that we should appreciate each and every one of these road victories.

1 comment:

  1. Another great, spot-on report. I had missed the fact that Horford had been such a reliable free-throw shooter before those two late misses--and I'm glad I missed it and read about it harmlessly after the fact.

    And you are totally right about the feel of Florida's gym. Florida should totally go back to the old cage around the court.