There was legitimate discussion before the college basketball season began about the young and talented Kentucky Wildcats running the table. What was missing from that talk was the fact that John Calipari’s team isn’t even the best squad in the SEC.
At least it wasn’t on Saturday night, when the Florida Gators came to Lexington and handed Kentucky a 69-59 loss.
The win extends the Gators’ winning streak to 17 and stretches their perfect SEC record to 12-0. They are 23-2 overall. Kentucky fell to 19-6 overall and 9-3 in the conference.
ESPN Stats & Info pointed out earlier in the day how historic of a win it would be for the Gators:
As expected, there was plenty of hype coming into this game.
Florida was 11-0 in the conference, the entire SEC season was building up to this matchup between the only two legitimate Final Four contenders in the league (and will again for the March 8 rematch to end the regular season), ESPN set up college-basketball base camp in Lexington all day and Dick Vitale—who is always excited—was ready before it even started:
Aside from all of the hype, the story heading into the game was how the young and relatively inexperienced Wildcats would handle a visit from the experienced Gators.
John Calipari discussed that reality with reporters in comments that were passed along by The Associated Press’ Gary B. Graves (via Yahoo Sports):
This game will tell us where we are. I would imagine they (the Gators) are coming in not to just win, they want to smash. We’re going to find out. There have been games where the other team came in excited and we weren’t able to withstand the beginning of the game and got down so far early that even though the rest of the game we won, we didn’t win by enough.
They know it’s a hard game, they know what we’re up against. This team could be the No. 1 team in the country and they’ve got (four) seniors.
The Wildcats handled the pressure in the first half and entered the locker room with the momentum and a 31-28 lead.
It was a back-and-forth contest throughout the first 20 minutes in front of a raucous crowd that was hungry for a signature victory.
Casey Prather carried the Gators before intermission with 12 points, three steals, two rebounds and one assist, while Dorian Finney-Smith contributed an important eight points and three rebounds off the bench.
From the Kentucky side, Julius Randle poured in 10 points and grabbed six rebounds and had his way a number of times against the formidable frontcourt of the Gators. He even hit a three-pointer when Florida elected not to guard him on the perimeter, which thrilled the crowd.
Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports was impressed with Randle’s first half:
Kentucky went on an extended run and appeared to create some separation with 10 minutes remaining in the game. Billy Donovan called a timeout and likely expressed some exasperation with his squad’s 1-of-11 start from behind the three-point line.
The Gators answered their coach by pounding it down low for a few possessions in a row, and then Scottie Wilbekin hit his (and Florida’s) second three of the night to bring the Gators right back into it.
CBS Sports' Jerry Palm pointed out exactly why Kentucky fans were uncomfortable at the time:
Calipari then responded with an ill-timed technical foul that allowed Florida to seize a three-point lead yet again. Seth Davis of CBS Sports gave Kentucky’s coach full credit for the mistake:
After the technical foul, the Gators extended the lead to five when Michael Frazier II drained a critical three-pointer after Florida battled for an offensive rebound. It was really a matter of time before the Gators’ best three-point shooter hit one from behind the arc.
Kentucky kept the game close, but Wilbekin was huge down the stretch in winning time. He attacked the lane multiple times and converted on his free throws when he absorbed contact. Wilbekin and the Gators simply made the plays in the waning moments when Kentucky did not.
Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports offered some condolence to Kentucky fans at least, despite the boos that rained down after the final buzzer sounded:
Julius Randle, Kentucky: B-
Randle was an absolute beast in the first half with 10 points and six rebounds.
However, he was virtually nonexistent in the second half from a scoring perspective and finished with 13 points overall. He did manage to pull down 13 rebounds, but he needed to be more assertive as the superstar on his squad.
In Randle’s defense, his guards did not make much of a concerted effort to get him the ball in the second half.
Scottie Wilbekin, Florida: A
Prather had an excellent game for the Gators with a team-high 24 points, but when Donovan’s team needed a big play in the second half, it went to Wilbekin.
He exposed Kentucky's freshmen guards in the critical moments, drove the lane with ease and converted on the pressure free throws with the game on the line. It was a team effort for Florida to walk away with a win in Lexington, but Wilbekin deserves special recognition.
He finished with 23 points and went 11-of-12 from the free-throw line.
James Young, Kentucky: B+
Had Kentucky won the game, James Young would have received a higher grade.
He finished with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field. He helped carry the Wildcats in the first 20 minutes with nine points, three rebounds and an assist.
Young and Andrew Harrison carried Kentucky from a scoring standpoint, but getting Randle involved should have been a bigger priority.
Kentucky heads to the road after hosting Florida with a tilt at Ole Miss on Tuesday. Following that is a home game against LSU on Saturday, Feb. 22.
Both the Tigers and the Rebels are in the middle of the SEC standings and will likely bring their A-game against the Wildcats. Calipari’s young squad will need to make sure it doesn’t overlook any of the hungry opponents it faces off against going forward.
As for Florida, the Gators return home to square off with Auburn on Wednesday and then go to Ole Miss on Saturday, Feb. 22. With the amount of talent Florida has at its disposal, it should be able to take care of both opponents.
With their most difficult road game in the rearview mirror, the question now becomes whether the Gators can run the table in the SEC.
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