Florida gets big opportunity vs. Kentucky

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Fans react as Florida senior guard KeVaughn Allen dives to save a ball from going out of bounds in overtime Wednesday against Ole Miss at Exactech Arena. [Brad McClenny/Staff photographer]

Florida’s strength of schedule ranks No. 18 in NCAA Division I men’s basketball, yet the Gators haven’t picked up a statement win.

Today will offer coach Mike White and the Gators a chance to strengthen their postseason odds when No. 7-ranked Kentucky arrives in Gainesville for a 4 p.m. tip off at the Exactech Arena in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

The Gators picked up a third consecutive SEC win Wednesday night, thanks in part to the heroics of senior shooting guard KeVaughn Allen. The Little Rock, Arkansas, native’s 3-pointer pulled the Gators (12-8, 4-3 SEC) even with Ole Miss with seconds remaining in regulation, and UF would go on for the 90-86 overtime victory.

White doesn’t expect Florida to carry any momentum from Wednesday’s result into the match-up with the Wildcats; if anything, the win over Ole Miss might give the Gators some much-needed confidence heading into a daunting slate.

“It’s nice to win, it beats the alternative,” White said. “I don’t know if that has a lot to do with the game tomorrow. Hopefully other than just feeling a little bit better about ourselves in the locker room. Maybe gaining a little bit of confidence.”

The issues inside the program don’t allow the Gators to significantly game-plan for each opponent. Instead, the dialogue heading into Saturday’s match-up pertains to UF’s individual improvements — especially in late-game situations — rather than stopping a Kentucky team that’s lost just once in the previous 11 games.

“How do we score against these guys? How do we defend them? How do you hold your own on the glass? Those are the things that we’ll spend our time talking about. Our guys will be ready to play, and geeked up. Kentucky demands that from anyone they play, of course,” White said. “And our guys for the most part have been ready to play. It’s just closing games, and in this one it’s a matter of whether or not you have an opportunity to be able to close a game. If you don’t play awfully well against a team like this, then it’s not about your finish. So we hope we’re competitive enough to have a chance late.”

It’s no secret that, in addition to Allen and fellow senior Kevarrius Hayes, the freshmen have kept Florida’s postseason hopes alive, and Wednesday’s showing was no different. The trio of Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson combined for 47 of UF’s 90 points against the Rebels, and Johnson’s plus/minus of plus-18 was the highest mark on either team. Making just his fourth collegiate start, Johnson said that, rather than hitting the “freshman wall”, the game has only started to get easier.

“I feel like it has slowed down,” Johnson said. “Coming off the bench, it was going fast and I felt like I wasn’t really prepared. But I feel like since the games have gone on, I’m getting adjusted to it.”

Yet with Johnson now a fixture in the starting lineup, the Gators must look elsewhere for bench production — and there’s no clear indication of who will answer the call against the Wildcats (17-3, 6-1 SEC).

“I think somebody’s got to give us something,” White said. “We’ve gotten very little offensive production off the bench as of late, and you hope a guy would come in and make a play in that regard, while defending at the same level. We’ve got capable guys on the bench, not that we’re getting great production right now. But at certain times a couple of these guys stepped up and made shots for us and made a winning play. We need it to happen again. We need it to happen more often. It’d be nice if it happened tomorrow.”


Today

Who: No. 7 Kentucky (17-3, 6-1 SEC) vs. Florida (12-8, 4-3)

When: 4 p.m.

Where: O’Connell Center

TV: ESPN

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 6.7 ppg; 5.2 rpg

Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 7.0 ppg; 2.1 blk

Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.3 ppg; 6.0 apg

KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 13.2 ppg; 2.7 rpg

Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 11.7 ppg; 2.9 3FG

Kentucky

Reid Travis; F; 6-8; Gr.; 12.3 ppg; 6.8 rpg

PJ Washington; F; 6-8; So.; 13.4 ppg; 8.3 rpg

Ashton Hagans; G; 6-3; Fr.; 7.6 ppg; 2.4 rpg

Keldon Johnson; G; 6-6; Fr.; 14.4 ppg; 5.1 rpg

Tyler Herro; G; 6-5; Fr.; 13.3 ppg; 4.3 rpg

Notes: Today’s game has sold out. … The Gators have taken three of the last four meetings against the Wildcats. Last season, the Gators picked up their sixth all-time sweep of Kentucky and first since 2014. Florida has won the last two meetings in Gainesville, including a 22-point win over an 8th-ranked UK team in 2017 … Florida had lost its previous five games this season decided by five points or less before Wednesday’s win over Ole Miss … John Calipari is now five wins away from tying Joe B. Hall for the second-most victories by a UK head coach in program history.

— Graham Hall

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