By LARRY VAUGHT
Okay, count me as one who thought by the midway point of the first half that Kentucky had no chance to win at Florida.
Sophomore guard Ashton Hagans didn’t make the trip for personal reasons after his emotional outbursts on Tuesday when UK blew a 17-point lead and lost at home to Tennessee.
The Gators were hitting shots, had UK’s offense discombobulated and the Cats were in foul trouble with a short bench.
Yet after getting 18 points behind with 11:55 to play and even though leading scorer Immanuel Quickley three minutes later, KENTUCKY WON 71-69 thanks a terrific offensive tip-in by EJ Montgomery to give UK its only lead of the game and three late defensive stops.
“It’s crazy. Don’t ask me what happened,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the game.
What about it Nick Richards, who put the Cats on his back late in the game and finished with 19 points and seven rebounds.
“This team has a will to win. It doesn’t really matter how much we’re down by we’re going to fight… We’re going to do whatever it takes win. That’s just us,” Richards said.
Richards had two points the first half and missed six of seven shots. He made seven of 11 the second half after Calipari told him he was going to keep getting the ball.
“Nick came alive in second half. How bad was he in the first half? That was Nick from a year or two ago,” Calipari told Tom Leach on the Kentucky Radio Network after the game. “Then he comes back out and plays.”
Freshman Keion Brooks Jr. came up huge for UK. He finished with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting, three rebounds and his defense led to a Florida turnover/shot clock violation before Montgomery’s game-winning tip.
He took two 3-point shots and made them both. He only had three all season before Saturday and had not made one since early December.
“I went at Keion. He was getting baskets and not getting stuff blocked,” Calipari said. “Keion came up with the biggest rebound of the game late. He played great. Starting the game he was not comfortable and I had to get him out. But we went back to him.”
Yet it was defense Brooks said won the game.
“To me when we started to strings some stops,” Brooks said when asked about when the game changed. “In the first half we could not get stops and were giving up penetration and leaving open shooters. After that we did (get some stops) and knocked down some shots.”
Rebounding also came up big as UK had 21 second-chance points. Richards had four of UK’s 14 offensive rebounds but what about Nate Sestina getting five.
“Coaches have been getting on me. Just happened a couple (of offensive rebounds) fell in my hands,” Sestina said on the UK Radio Network. “I am just attacking the rim. You have to fight and rebounds are important. Keion got big rebounds, EJ had big rebounds.”
He’s right and Kentucky went from looking like a Final Four team in the first half against Tennessee Tuesday to blowing a 17-point lead the second half to looking like “crap” (Calipari’s words) in the first half at Florida to staging the second biggest comeback of the Calipari era the second half to change the whole perception of UK basketball.