Gators back on track after win over Wildcats


Florida head coach Billy Donovan walks on the sidelines as center Patric Young high-fives teammates during the first half on Tuesday at the O'Connell Center. Florida defeated Kentucky 69-52.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 5:45 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 13, 2013 at 7:21 p.m.

Two seasons changed Tuesday night when No. 7 Florida dismantled visiting No. 25 Kentucky 69-52 at the O'Connell Center.

Facts

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Who: Florida (20-3, 10-1 SEC) at Auburn (9-14, 3-7 SEC)
When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Auburn Arena
Gainesville-area TV: WOGX (Cox Channel 13), WJXT (Cox Channel 19)
Gainesville-area radio: 103.7 FM, AM-850

For the Gators, it showed they remain in the conversation with elite teams in the country after a disappointing effort on national TV the week before at Arkansas.

For Kentucky, it was a harsher fork in the road. The school confirmed Wednesday that freshman starting center Nerlens Noel is done for the year with a torn ACL he suffered in the second half of UK's loss.

Noel suffered the injury hustling back to block Florida senior Mike Rosario's shot attempt. His left knee buckled and twisted as he landed underneath the basket.

“I'm physically sick for the kid, and if it were a walk-on, I'd be sick for him, too,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said following the game.

Rosario had come up with a steal and was racing down the floor for a breakaway layup with the 6-foot-10 Noel trailing him. Noel howled in pain after his knee buckled.

“I admire the way he plays and I admire his energy,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Really, if you think about it, I don't know how badly he's hurt, but the injury came from a hustle play and it kind of embodies who he is as a player. He's a hustle-play guy, and you just feel sad that if there is any kind of length or duration he's out because I think everyone admires in this league, coaches-wise, the way he plays the game.”

The Gators extended their lead to two over Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference title race. And with the 6-foot-10 Noel done for the year, Florida's rematch at Kentucky to close the regular season March 9 at Rupp Arena is more winnable.

Florida (20-3, 10-1 SEC) improved to 12-0 at the O'Connell Center and appears back on track after its first conference loss last week against Arkansas.

“Coach challenged us this week to push ourselves,” Florida junior center Patric Young said. “We were in first place, but we were still down on ourselves. It just made us realize we had to come out ready to play against Kentucky.”

Florida returned to the formula that helped it win its first eight SEC games — balanced offense and pressure defense. The Gators scored 20 points off turnovers against the Wildcats while holding Kentucky to 42 percent from the floor. A Kentucky team that averaged going to the free-throw line 24.3 times per game only made it to the free-throw line 11 times against UF.

”This was our best defensive game since Ole Miss or the other games where we had great defense,” Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We kind of got away from it the last couple of games. I think we got back to that.”

Offensively, Florida had five scorers in double figures, led by Wilbekin's 14 points and eight assists. Wilbekin had been benched for the Mississippi State game due to his practice performance following the Arkansas game.

The Gators attacked the basket when Kentucky tried to take away the 3-point attempt. Florida outscored Kentucky 36-26 in the paint.

“They can beat you on the dribble, they've got a little bit of post-up stuff they can throw at you, and when they are beating you on the dribble, you better make sure you are guarding 3-point shooters,” Calipari said.

Donovan said he felt UF was “distracted” heading into the Arkansas loss and that those issues carried over into UF's win against Mississippi State. With the expanded 18-game schedule and no byes this season, Donovan said it was understandable Florida could lose its focus.

“To stay at that mental and emotional high, game in, game out is very, very difficult,” Donovan said. “I thought we lost our edge there the last week to 10 days. Now whether or not we have it back, I don't know. I think the length of the season is a mental drain when you are trying to get your guys play at a certain level.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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