By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Kentucky provided a roller coaster ride of emotions during the week leading up to Saturday’s 71-70 win over the Florida Gators in Gainesville. It seemed like after the low point of emotions from the Cats’ loss to Tennessee at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night they would come in prepared for a fight in Gainesville.
But then after news broke about UK’s point guard Ashton Hagans not making the trip for personal reasons the Big Blue Nation’s psyche fell again, wondering how the Cats would perform on the road against the Gators and going forward into post-season play.
Once the game started and Florida roared out to a double-digit lead and stayed there, thanks to some hot outside shooting and sticky defense, it seemed like Big Blue Nation had hit rock bottom. By midway through the second half all but the most die-hard fans had given up on any chance of the Cats pulling this game out as a win. At that point the emotional roller coaster had hit the bottom of the tracks.
Then, through some gritty effort by the Wildcats and a couple of miraculous plays near the end of the game, Kentucky managed to pull out a 71-70 victory after a last second 3-point shot by Florida’s Andrew Nembhard hit rim, bounced high in the air and came off into the hands of a waiting Wildcat and UK walked off the court with the season-ending victory.
So what have we learned from this game against the Gators specifically, and this season in general? Here are six things that I found out about this UK team and they come in the form of an acrostic that spells Gators. I know it’s cheesy, but so am I, so let’s get started.
First of all let’s start with a G in Guarantee, as in, “I guarantee you don’t know what will happen with this team.” They blow a 17-point lead at home against a 13-loss Tennessee team on their Senior Night, then their point guard decides not to play in the last game of the season after telling his coach he didn’t want to go back into the game during the Tennessee loss and finally they pull out a heart-stopping victory on the road at Florida after being down 18 points.
Coach Calipari said after the unlikely comeback win against Florida, ““It’s crazy. Don’t ask me what happened.” I think that pretty much describes this season after 31 games.
Secondly let’s talk about A for Adversity, as in this team thrives on adversity but can’t seem to handle prosperity. They have been up and down all year, they have overcome one of their highly talented freshmen prospects quitting mid-season due to “personal reasons”, they have squandered big leads, worked through poor officiating in games, cold shooting streaks, concerns about their ability to play defense, losses to extremely less talented teams, potential poor seeding in the NCAA Tournament because of those losses along with the disappearance of their sophomore point guard heading into the last game of the season on the road. And yet through all this adversity they came out of it with an SEC regular season championship and a potential No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament if they perform well in the SEC Tournament. Not bad for a team that has had to scratch and claw constantly uphill to achieve any success.
Next is T for Talent, as in even without Ashton Hagans, their point guard, for the entire game and, Immanuel Quickley, their best scoring guard and potential SEC player of the year along with some questionable officiating at Florida on Senior Day through Talent they found a way to win. It seems like no matter how many times you push this team off the ledge, like a cat, they always land on their feet. Several times in games this season they could have packed it in but they almost always seem to scratch and claw their way back into games after digging themselves into a hole. Talent seems to be one of the big equalizers in that process. Talent like Nick Richards taking the ball inside late in the Florida game to finish with 17 second half points. Talent like Immanuel Quickley hitting three-pointers from everywhere down the stretch of some of their recent wins while he also sinks clutch free throws at an unbelievable 92 percent; or Tyrese Maxey having 7 assists with only 1 turnover while playing 39 minutes as the point guard. Even talent like Nate Sestina and EJ Montgomery having games where a key rebound or tip in has been the difference in winning and losing.
And of course O, as in opportunity lost by throwing out the window a lot of what they had accomplished in a 8 game SEC win streak. If UK had lost 2 games in a row to Tennessee and Florida all the work to improve their seeding and try to eliminate the taste in their mouths of those bad early season losses to Evansville and Utah would have been for naught. Instead the come from behind win against Florida proves two things – they can win against a quality team with out all their key players and they can never be counted out in any game if they are willing to give an all out effort.
Next is R, as in total Respect for a couple of guys that normally don’t play large roles and had to step up and help carry the team against Florida. Johnny Juzang and Keion Brooks, Jr., both played quality minutes in the Florida win. Brooks, who averages 15 minutes per game played a career high 27 minutes, and Juzang averaging 12 minutes per game played a career high 33 minutes. Both also provided double digit scoring and quality defense to help offset the absence of Ashton Hagans for the entire game and Immanuel Quickley for much of the second half.
Finally S is for Surprise, in that there are never any givens with this team. Every game is a surprise. Whitney leaving was a surprise, Hagans not making the trip to Florida was a surprise, the losses to teams like Evansville and Tennessee at Rupp Arena were surprises, comeback wins like the one at Florida have been surprises and finally, the play of players like All-SEC and Player of the Year candidates Nick Richards and Immanuel Quickley have been a surprise. Even the improbable win on the road against Arkansas where Coach John Calipari was kicked out of the game with eight minutes to go and the assistant coaches played a zone defense to help rally the Cats to a 73-66 win was a surprise.
So there you have it, six things I know about this Kentucky team after watching thirty-one regular season games. Finishing this season with an improbable win in a hostile situation on the road for Senior Day, against a very talented Florida team while shorthanded, just shows that this team has a will to win. And IF they decide to play as a team and give maximum effort in every game they have left, they have the potential to be crowned National Champions. And based on this season of a wild roller coaster ride that would be a fitting finish.