After an emotional win over Ole Miss just three days prior, coach Mike White seemed concerned about his team’s energy level coming into Saturday’s battle against No. 7-ranked Kentucky, thanks in part to Florida’s noticeable lack of depth.
The decisive 10 minutes against the Wildcats seemingly confirmed White’s premonition.
Kentucky closed the game on a 34-12 run, as the Gators seemed overwhelmed and overmatched.
But that was hardly the case through the first 30 minutes at the O’Connell Center.
After holding a 42-31 lead in the second half, the Gators experienced a complete drop-off in offensive production, especially from the three freshmen, who provided 47 of UF’s 90 points against the Rebels on Wednesday night.
“It just seemed like we couldn’t score for a couple days there. We couldn’t find a way. Tried a couple different ways to generate it, and it didn’t work,” White said. “I thought it affected our defensive energy a little bit.
“We have to be more accountable defensively when we are struggling offensively.”
Andrew Nembhard, who led Florida with 10 points in the first half, couldn’t find his shot in the second half and managed a lone basket as a result. Noah Locke, averaging 2.9 three-point field goals per game, didn’t score in the final 17:20 after making his second 3-pointer. And Keyontae Johnson may have hauled in 10 rebounds, five coming on the offensive end, but four fouls kept the high-rising forward from contributing offensively over the final 18 minutes of action.
Call it the “freshman wall” or simply tired legs: the truth is, with an opportunity to pick up a statement win, the Gators ran out of gas before the finish line.
“Yeah, we were fatigued down the stretch, of course,” White said. “I thought we played with a lot of energy and motion, and the place was rocking. And I rode those guys. We’re not the deepest team, as we know. And I probably rode those guys too many minutes.”
Johnson concurred with the frank assessment of his head coach.
“At the end, it showed that (we were tired). We just stopped communicating at the last part of the game and were missing rotations,” Johnson said. “No excuses at all. We run a lot in practice, we just weren’t getting stops while trying to catch our breath.”
One could also attribute the late decline to the differences in the each team’s preceding showing. The Wildcats dominated from the opening tip Tuesday in claiming an 87-52 win at Vanderbilt — a far cry from Florida’s overtime outcome against Ole Miss a night later.
But Nembhard, unwilling to make excuses for a UF team that led by double digits in the second half against a top-10 team, kiboshed that notion.
“That’s just the SEC,” Nembhard. “That’s not one of the excuses I wanted to make for this game, for sure. We just need to push harder the last 10 minutes of the game or so. We have it in us, we just need to do it.”
Who: Florida (12-9, 4-4 SEC) vs. Auburn (15-6, 4-4)
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Auburn Arena, Auburn, Ala.
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850