By LARRY VAUGHT
Losing recruit Zion Williamson to Duke about the same time the game started was a blow to Kentucky.
But it was nothing compared to the blow the Cats suffered during the next two hours when they had too many scoring droughts and mental mistakes in a 66-64 loss to Florida.
The Gators took total control of the Southeastern Conference race with this win as they are now 6-1 in SEC play while UK dropped 4-3 with road games left at Missouri, Texas A&M, Auburn, Arkansas and Florida. Plus, the Cats — who are certain to drop out of the top 25 this week — also have a ESPN GameDay visit to West Virginia Jan. 27 that could get ugly.
Yet Kentucky coach John Calipari said he was proud of his team for giving itself a chance to win.
“I don’t want to get frustrated with the kids. They are trying,” Calipari said. “The good thing is I have a full roster now. This is very much encouraging.
“We are going to be fine now. That is one of the best offensive teams in the country. We had some freshman mistakes. I can cure those mistake. The ability to pass the ball to one another and the ability to scramble and do some good things … we will be fine. I was worried after South Carolina (where UK blew a 14-point lead and lost Tuesday). I am not worried now. I was worried after Vanderbilt, and we won.”
Florida coach Mike White thought Kentucky defended at a high level.
“We were able to win it just very, very ugly fortunately,” White said. “They are a very young and very talented team and a team that defended us at as high a level as anyone has this year.”
Kentucky had a 28-20 lead after a 7-0 run only to go the final five minutes of the half without a field goal to let Florida regain the lead. Kentucky fought back to take a 56-53 lead with 5:53 to go only to have Florida respond with an 11-2 run.
The Cats had won 16 straight wins at home and 30 in a row against SEC foes. And Florida missed 23 of 34 shots in the second half at Rupp Arena and still won.
“I promised I didn’t think that (miss that many shots and win). We tend to struggle when we are not hitting shots. But we shown we can do a good job being tough, playing hard and finding ways to win. We did that tonight,”
Kentucky trailed 64-58 in the final minute before 3-pointers by Kevin Knox and Wenyen Gabriel got UK within 66-64. The Gators kept the door open by missing two free throws with 19.9 seconds to go.
However, UK freshman point guard Quade Green had his shot blocked on a drive to the basket with 6.2 seconds left and then P.J. Washington had his shot blocked — it looked like he was hit in the face on the play — with 2.5 seconds left. On the final inbounds play, UK threw the ball away.
What did Calipari think about Washington’s drive?
“You would ask me that. I have been asked some dumb questions in my life. Everybody saw that,” Calipari said. “Quade drove and got knocked. I don’t know if that was a foul or not. But we had our chances.”
“When you play here, crazy things happen and normally they find a way to win,” Chiozza, who was 0-3 in previous games at Rupp Arena, said.
Gabriel and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander both had 10 points to lead Kentucky. Gabriel was 4-for-6 from the field — and had seven straight points in the first half — but Gilgeous-Alexander was 4-for-12. Gilgeous-Alexander did have six assists and four rebounds.
Hamidou Diallo had eight points, six rebounds and three assists. Nick Richards had eight points and nine rebounds. P.J. Washington had six points and seven rebounds.
Jalen Hudson led Florida with 17 points on only 4-for-13 shooting from the field but 7-for-10 from the foul line. He also had three other teammates in double figures.
But the biggest key is that the Gators kept their poise late in the first half and to finish the game as well.
“We didn’t know what they were doing (on the final two shots). We tried to be ready. They were getting to the rim all game. We knew if they drove we had to show our hands and make them finish over us. I think our experience in the last two minutes really helped us,” Hudson said.
“We were so much more poised than they were. They were trying to take home run shots. I felt like our experience helped. Maybe that’s just in my mind, but we are the older team and it showed.”
Yet Calipari seemed almost giddy about the way his team defended and fought despite the loss. He knows Kentucky fans don’t feel that way, but he seemed the most confident about this team’s future that he has all year.
“I am good. There will be some people out there panicked. We will be fine,” Calipari said. “If they don’t share the ball and play with a spirit to try and win the game, other things don’t matter. We defended well enough to win this game.”