In the midst of a two-game losing streak, and still fighting for an NCAA Tournament invitation, the Florida men’s basketball team concludes the regular season at Rupp Arena with a 2 p.m. matchup against the No. 6-ranked Kentucky Wildcats.
Despite a season-high 33 points from senior Jalen Hudson, the Gators (17-13, 9-8 SEC) suffered a 79-78 defeat Wednesday in overtime at the hands of No.10-ranked LSU. With a chance to win the game in the waning seconds, fellow senior KeVaughn Allen was unable to get a shot off before the buzzer — a mental lapse in a critical moment.
As a result, coach Mike White has opted for a cerebral approach to practice as the team prepares to once again challenge a top-10 opponent.
“We went the other way yesterday — all mental. We didn’t even get on the court. Met and filmed it up. We’ll get after it here in a little bit. Won’t go very long,” White said Friday. “Again, heavy minutes, another overtime game, not a lot of depth, freshmen. A few guys kind of banged up a little bit. We’ll go very short (Friday).”
Hudson had an energetic mindset prior to battling the Tigers, and it showed on the court as he attempted a season-high 20 shots from the field. Yet as White mentioned, the majority of Florida’s roster is feeling the effects of what has been a difficult season in various ways. The freshmen are dealing with various ailments; forward Keyontae Johnson clutched ice to his right arm after scoring 15 points, in addition to a team-high four steals, against the Tigers, while Noah Locke has been hobbled by a leg injury since early January. To top it off, point guard Andrew Nembhard went down against LSU and came up wincing, and it appeared the Ontario, Canada, native had suffered an injury to his right knee. He would finish the game, yet it’s clear Florida’s freshmen trio are aching with the season on the line.
“I’m just sore right now, it’s not really that bad right now,” said Locke, who scored 10 points despite coming off the bench for the first time in 25 games. “It’s like once I get moving, I’m pretty fine.”
With Allen set to play his final regular season game Saturday, the time for looking toward the future is quickly approaching for the Gators. Locke has emerged as the likely successor to lock down the two-guard spot next season, although he’ll have to stave off competition from incoming guards Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann. Before departing for Kentucky (25-5, 14-3), the Randallstown, Maryland, native paused to reflect on his growth during his inaugural collegiate season. As Florida looks to make a final push, it’ll likely need the freshmen to continue on their current trajectory.
“I feel like I have come a really long way. In the beginning it was really tough, just coming from Maryland and playing in the league that I played in,” Locke said. “It was competitive, but it wasn’t as competitive or at the level that I am playing at now. It was a lot of adjustments I had to make in my game. It has been some up and downs throughout the season for me, personally, (but) I feel like I came through it the right way.”
Who: Florida (17-13, 9-8 SEC) vs. No. 6 Kentucky (25-5, 14-3)
When: 2 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 7.7 ppg; 5.8 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 7.4 ppg; 1.9 blk
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 8.0 ppg; 5.1 apg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 12.2 ppg; 2.9 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 10.3 ppg; 2.5 3FG
EJ Montgomery; F; 6-10; Fr.; 4.0 ppg; 4.0 rpg
PJ Washington; F; 6-8; So.; 14.9 ppg; 7.4 rpg
Ashton Hagans; G; 6-3; Fr.; 7.6 ppg; 2.3 rpg
Keldon Johnson; G; 6-6; Fr.; 13.7 ppg; 5.8 rpg
Tyler Herro; G; 6-5; Fr.; 14.1 ppg; 4.5 rpg
Notes: Florida looks to bounce back from a two-game skid that followed a season-best five-game winning streak to close the month of February. …The Gators won at Lexington last season and are trying for their first back-to-back road wins against Kentucky since 2006 and 2007. … Florida will be seeded between No. 6 and 8 in next week’s SEC Tournament, pending several league outcomes. … UF leads the SEC in scoring defense (63.7; t-20th nationally) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.316)…The Gators rank 2nd in in turnover margin (+3.6) and 3-pointers made (8.4). … Florida has several players who rank among the SEC leaders: KeVaughn Allen (1st, .882 free throw percentage); Kevarrius Hayes (t-2nd, 2.8 offensive rebounds); Noah Locke (3rd, .391 3-point field goal percentage; 4th, 2.5 3-pointers made); and Andrew Nembhard (4th, 2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio). … Overall, Florida’s defense has been strong this season, currently 14th in KenPom defensive efficiency, and the Gators have held 9 opponents to 57 points or fewer.
— Graham Hall