By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky needed some kind of a spark and the Cats found it when coach John Calipari went to a smaller lineup against Florida Saturday.
Kentucky went with four guards — Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson — along with PJ Washington and went on a 15-2 run that opened a 54-42 lead with 5:41 left. The Cats went on to win 66-57 in their final regular season game.
“We have been working on that (going small),” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “(Florida coach) Mike (White) went small. We can’t have lapses like we did but the way we finished the game, the will to win …”
The victory moved UK up to second in the SEC Tournament seedings because earlier in the day Tennessee lost at Auburn. The Vols and UK both finished 15-3 in league play but UK will now play an earlier game on Friday in Nashville instead of the final quarterfinal game.
Tyler Herro led UK’s balanced scoring attack with 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting while PJ Washington went 6-for-14 and had 15 points. Both Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson had 14 points. Washington had a team-high nine rebounds while Johnson had seven, EJ Montgomery seven and Herro six.
“Tyler wasn’t guarding in the first half because he was going under screens because it was easier. Why would you do this?” Calipari said. “But in the second half, he did more.”
Calipari said Washington missed “five one-footers” in the first half or he could have had 25 points.
“In the second half he did it all. We need 40 minutes like that,” Calipari said.
The Gators were just 19 of 46 from the field and missed seven of eight shots in a six-minute stretch when UK’s surge put the game out of reach.
“We guarded their 3’s, but they missed some open shots. I am happy with the way we played,” Calipari said. “I told them you don’t play up to the team you are playing. You play to what we are training. We are going to stay with that.”
Florida coach Mike White said only getting six turnovers against a Kentucky team he thinks could be the nation’s best defensive team was outstanding.
“We did a lot of good things offensively but we didn’t make foul shots and some other things,” White said.
Two plays — a difficult catch in traffic and baseline fadeaway just before the shot clock expired by Washington and then a Herro drive through the lane and left-handed finish in the lane — had the Rupp Arena crowd erupt during UK’s streak. This will be the last time that over 23,000 fans are in Rupp Arena because of the seating renovations that will take place during the offseason.
Kentucky also played again without Reid Travis, who has missed five games with a sprained knee. Calipari said he’s “stayed out of” asking about Travis’ status to avoid putting any pressure on him.
“If we get him back, I will do back flips. If not, we will be fine,” Calipari said.
“With what they have right now, they are terrific,” White said. “PJ Washington is turning into one of these big shot guys, timely guys. They have good connectively offensively but defensively they are elite. We missed a bunch of altered shots.”
The Kentucky coach has never been a fan of the SEC Tournament. That has not changed going into Friday’s SEC tourney opener for the Cats.
“They say tournaments don’t really matter, so if we lose in the first round we should be whatever seed we were (for the NCAA Tournament),” Calipari said. “But it won’t be that way for us.”