The place was rocking and the Florida basketball team was knocking on the door of a signature win with the just over 13 minutes to play Saturday.
Instead, the Gators were kicked off the porch in an all-too-familiar way.
Florida’s offense went into a deep freeze and No. 7 Kentucky heated up. The combination allowed the Wildcats to win their eighth straight game 65-54 in front of a sold-out crowd at Exactech Arena.
“We got a little stagnant,” said senior Kevarrius Hayes. “Weren’t as aggressive. Maybe just wanting the game to get over.”
That’s a familiar theme to so many Florida losses in this year of blown leads. The Gators couldn’t finish again and fell to 12-9 and 4-4 in the SEC. Florida has lost four games at home this season.
“It’s tough,” said Florida coach Mike White. “For 30 minutes, we played well enough to beat a terrific team. We just couldn’t hold on.”
Florida held Kentucky scoreless for a 6:07 stretch early in the second half and led 42-31 with Hayes at the line for two shots. But he missed both and things began to unravel for Florida.
“I don’t think that was the turning point,” Hayes said, “We still looked up at the clock with 10 minutes to go and had the lead.”
Yes, but it had been reduced because the Gators had their own scoring drought, one that lasted 4:45 without a point as Kentucky pulled to within 42-41.
“They played great defensively in the second half,” said Florida’s Andrew Nembhard.
The Wildcats (18-3, 7-1) began switching more defensively, taking away Florida’s 3-point shooting while still be long enough to affect drives to the basket. Florida managed to get the lead back to five at 48-43 with 7:12 to play, but scored only six points the rest of the game.
In the final seven minutes, Florida went 3-for-14 shooting and 0-for-5 from the 3-point line.
“What’s amazing to me is they only got off 19 3-point shots in the game,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “They average 30.”
And when Florida went cold, Kentucky was able to use its size advantage and the hot-shooting of freshman Tyler Herro to take over the game.
Herro needed only eight shots to score a game-high 19 points and PJ Washington had 15 points and 12 rebounds as Kentucky shot 50 percent from the field in the second half, even with a 1-for-7 start.
“Our defense failed us in this one probably as much as it has in any of our losses,” White said. “A majority of our shots were contested and it affected our defensive energy a little bit.”
It also affected the scoreboard. Florida only scored 12 points in the last 13-plus minutes of the game.
“We had a couple of very long dry spells,” White said. “It felt like we couldn’t score for a couple of days there.”
Nembhard led Florida with 12 points, all but two of them in the first half. KeVaughn Allen, the hero of Wednesday night’s overtime win, scored 11 points, but needed 15 shots and never went to the free throw line. Jalen Hudson showed signs of life with 11 points and four rebounds.
But in the end, an opportunity to get the biggest win of the season slipped away like so many others have this season.
“It’s deflating,” White said.
The Gators next play at Auburn on Tuesday night, the first of two straight road games.
NOTES: Florida used Saturday’s game as an opportunity to show off a little. In the pregame, the Gators 2018 SEC baseball champions were honored, firing T-shirts into the crowd. During one first-half break, UF gold medal swimmer Caeleb Dressel was brought on the court to be honored for numerous awards, including NCAA athlete of the year. And at halftime, members of the UF football team were brought on the court along with coach Dan Mullen. QB Feleipe Franks was presented with the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl offensive MVP and defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson the defensive MVP. Florida was again presented with the winning trophy … Also in the crowd and getting a rousing hand when he was introduced after a video montage — Gator great Chandler Parsons … Gator basketball signee Scottie Lewis was introduced in the stands late in the first half … Kevarrius Hayes passed Al Horford to become the second best in UF history with blocked shots. Dwayne Schintzius is No. 1.
Washington 6-13 3-5 15, Kel.Johnson 4-13 0-0 10, Travis 3-5 0-0 6, Herro 6-8 4-4 19, Hagans 2-5 2-2 6, Montgomery 0-0 0-0 0, Richards 0-0 0-0 0, Quickley 1-6 4-5 7, Baker 1-6 0-0 2. Totals 23-56 13-16 65.
Key.Johnson 3-7 2-2 8, Hayes 2-5 0-2 4, Allen 5-15 0-0 11, Nembhard 5-11 0-0 12, Locke 2-12 0-0 6, Stokes 0-0 0-0 0, Bassett 0-0 0-0 0, Okauru 0-0 0-0 0, Ballard 1-5 0-0 2, Hudson 4-8 3-6 11. Totals 22-63 5-10 54.
Halftime_Florida 33-29. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 6-21 (Herro 3-4, Kel.Johnson 2-5, Quickley 1-5, Washington 0-1, Hagans 0-2, Baker 0-4), Florida 5-19 (Nembhard 2-4, Locke 2-7, Allen 1-7, Key.Johnson 0-1). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Kentucky 42 (Washington 12), Florida 32 (Key.Johnson 10). Assists_Kentucky 13 (Hagans 4), Florida 7 (Nembhard 3). Total Fouls_Kentucky 12, Florida 15.