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Florida comeback good postseason sign for Cats

EJ Montgomery got the winning basket at Florida on this tip to finish UK’s comeback from an 18-point deficit. (Vicky Graff Photo)

By KEITH TAYLOR, Kentucky Today

Kentucky proved a point Saturday: Never count out the Wildcats when their backs are against the wall.

Already a top seed for the upcoming Southeastern Conference Tournament, sixth-ranked Kentucky took its game at Florida seriously. It showed in the second half, especially when the odds were stacked against John Calipari’s squad after leading scorer Immanuel Quickley fouled out with nine minutes remaining.

Playing without point guard Ashton Hagans, who didn’t make the trip to sort out some “personal issues,” things didn’t start out well for Kentucky, but Tyrese Maxey did just enough to fill the void. Most teams would have folded and looked ahead to the conference tournament but the Wildcats stuck together through adversity and found a way to win.

That’s what good teams do. One man down, next man steps up. Or in Kentucky’s case, it was the next three – Johnny Juzang, Keion Brooks and Nate Sestina. That trio combined for 29 points including season-highs of 10 points each for Juzang and Brooks.

The comeback at Florida is a good sign for the Wildcats moving forward. Although a loss to Tennessee earlier this week was a crushing defeat, the rally at Florida quickly erased memories of a second-half meltdown against the Volunteers and renewed hope for postseason success with Selection Sunday a week away.

In most NCAA Tournament bracket predictions, Kentucky is trending upward and in contention for a No. 2 seed in either the Midwest or East Region. If not for the Tennessee letdown, the Wildcats would be in the conversation for a No. 1 seed. But thanks to a break-even week to end the regular season, the Wildcats (25-6) appear to be a solid two and a safe No. 3 seed depending on how the conference tournaments play out this week.

Kentucky boosted its tournament resume by beating the Gators to complete a regular-season sweep, but got some help from other Top 10 teams who lost Saturday. No. 8 Seton Hall lost to Creighton, while No 4 Baylor was upset by West Virginia and No. 5 San Diego State suffered a three-point loss to Utah State.

Facing adversity from the opening tip, the entire team benefitted from the successful comeback in Gainesville, especially backups Brooks, Sestina and Juzang.

All three players gained more confidence just in time or the postseason and Brooks was the go-to player on a late possession that won the game for the Wildcats. Although Brooks barely missed the shot underneath the basket, it showed Calipari had no problem going with the hot hand with the game on the line. The play eventually paid off in the form of a putback tip-in by EJ Montgomery that capped an improbable comeback.

Juzang is starting to hit his stride and Sestina continues to provide valuable minutes off the bench. Juzang, along with Brooks, hit timely 3-point shots against the Gators. Nick Richards reverted and then regained his form in the second half and took a challenge from the coaching staff to heart.

Calipari had no explanation for the comeback, but his team’s actions spoke louder than words.

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Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Tennessee-Alabama winner, 1 p.m., Friday, Nashville. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

3 comments

  1. Oh yeah!!!! A big UK win, and all done with ongoing adversity, and a short bench, 7 man rotation. UK without their lead guard, but in goes Maxey at the point. Good job TM!!! UK’s ace shooter, and usual game closer, fouls out, but the mighty Cats still find a way to embarrass the Gators on their home floor after they had led by 18 big ones. IT HAPPENS FOLKS. Life is good, but sorry to say we still have some whiners, and doubters on this here site. A little credit to the Coach is appropriate here IMO. Be humble until game time Cats, then Go kick A$$ in this SEC Tourney.

  2. What is sad is people like you have to keep pretending that all is well with our team. We were extremely lucky to have won that game in Gainesville evidenced by the fact that it took a miraculous effort on EJ’s part in the last 30 seconds to give us a lead. Tyrese was 1 for 11 and Immanuel was off his game and fouled out. The fact that we won was nothing short of a miracle. Coach was honest enough to call it what it was. You seem to think that our team’s psyche is so fragile that it can’t take any form of criticism, unless it comes from you. I guess then that’s not criticism, but noble insight that only the God of KY basketball can shed light on. Nick, Keion, Nate, and Johnny are the reason we were in a position for EJ’s follow up to give us a lead and the win. Why don’t you give credit where credit is due? Tyrese and Immanuel didn’t win that game, our big guys did. at least that’s how the rest of the world saw it. I guess you were watching a different game.

    1. 33 my man, Catmandoo, or is it Mike? Let’s see, UK is the regular season SEC champion now, and currently ranks 7th or 8th in the nation. and probably headed to the big dance as at least a 3 seed. They are coming off a great win, but you are still not happy. I believe it was you in a past life who mouthed that they, Calipari and the Cats, wouldn’t win the SEC in 2020, remember that? How has that worked out for you, you sound dismayed really. Nice try on the handle change though. But some of us know who you are. LOL’s

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