Believing he had picked up a second technical foul, and with his team facing a double-digit deficit, Kentucky coach John Calipari was already in the tunnel and headed for the locker room, much to the delight of the Florida faithful taking in the regular-season finale.
But Calipari’s day wasn’t done, and neither were the Wildcats. Far from it, in fact.
No. 6 Kentucky overcame an 18-point deficit and took its first lead with 11.6 seconds to play before securing the 71-70 win on Florida’s Senior Day, leaving the O’Connell Center crowd stunned in the process.
Poised for a statement win, the Gators (19-12, 11-7 SEC) instead were once again left shaking their heads in disbelief.
“That was a tough one for us,” Florida coach Mike White said. “We were up big. They made huge plays.”
The Gators would get one final chance to avoid squandering the upset, but Andrew Nembhard’s 3-pointer at the buzzer wouldn’t fall despite twice hitting the rim before falling to the court.
“We had every opportunity.” White said. “We just didn’t take advantage.”
After honoring Kerry Blackshear Jr. and Chris Sutherland prior to tip-off, the Gators came roaring out of the gate and quickly took a 7-0 lead within the game’s first two minutes of action. A pair of free throws from Scottie Lewis – who finished the game with a career-high 19 points – put UF up 20-9, and the Gators seemed well on their way.
Florida still held a double-digit lead (40-30) by the halftime break – although there was a cause for concern after Blackshear injured his left wrist early in the contest, but initially told athletic trainer Duke Werner he intended on staying in the game.
Yet Blackshear would have to head to the locker room early before halftime, and would play just two minutes in the second half before sitting for the remainder of the contest.
He would finish his final regular season collegiate game having gone scoreless in just under 12 minutes of play.
“I was told at halftime that Duke thought it was a sprain of the wrist,” White said. “That’s not official, that’s just what he thought. (Blackshear) is definitely as tough as anyone on our team, one of the toughest guys I’ve coached. He hasn’t missed a practice all year, and has battled different things, including illness at times, and won’t take a breath off. So when he walked over to the sideline a couple minutes into the second half and said he couldn’t go, then I knew it must have been really hurting him.”
He wasn’t the only noticeable face missing though, as prior to tip-off Calipari announced starting point guard Ashton Hagans didn’t make the trip to Gainesville due to “personal reasons,” leaving the visitors without the SEC’s assists leader. Keion Brooks Jr. started in Hagans’ place and recorded 10 points in 27 minutes of play.
“It’s personal. He just came up and said ‘I’m in a bad way’,” Calipari said of Hagans’ unexpected absence. “My first responsibility is the health and well-being of my players. And when a guy tells me ‘Coach, I’ve got to step away’, I’m with you. Tell me why, tell me what you’re thinking, what is it. Bang, I’m good. I’ll see you when we get back, and hopefully what you’ll see is an inspired young man. And if he doesn’t think he’s ready for that, then he’s not ready.”
The star of the Wildcats’ comeback wasn’t Brooks, nor was it Immanuel Quickley, who carved up the Gators in the previous meeting but would foul out with more than nine minutes remaining – it was junior forward Nick Richards.
After starting 0-for-7 from the field in the first half, Richards would score 17 points in the second half on 7-for-11 shooting as Kentucky (25-6, 15-3) looked to take advantage of a Blackshear-less frontcourt. Following the conclusion of the under-4 timeout, the Wildcats would cut the once-sizable deficit to one possession on Richards’ jumper, although freshman Omar Payne, who finished with six points and three rebounds in 20 minutes, would answer with a putback slam.
“You talk about toughness defensively,” White said. “Sometimes toughness, too, is stepping up and making a timely shot.”
But back-to-back baskets from Richards would pull the Wildcats within a point, setting up the dramatic final minute of play.
Florida appeared to force Brooks into a miss, only for EJ Montgomery to come soaring in for a putback finish that was initially ruled as interference by the officiating crew. However, after reviewing the play, the officials awarded the Wildcats the basket, giving Kentucky its first lead of the afternoon.
With the SEC’s No. 2 seed now off the table, the Gators now sit in fourth place in the conference heading into the tournament, although a Mississippi State victory would push UF down a spot further into fifth place.
“Very disappointing the way that we defended and rebounded down the stretch. We’ve got to put it behind us. We’ve struggled with it at different times throughout the year,” White said. “Defensively we’ve struggled to get everyone in the locker room on the same page in terms of buy-in, pride, toughness, the overall level of importance of each possession. But we’ve got next week to see if we can figure it out.”
Kentucky has the top seed in next week’s SEC Tournament at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. It gets an extended break before playing in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday.
The Gators’ fate was determined Saturday night, when Mississippi State defeated Ole Miss. The loss to UK knocked Florida out of the double-bye of a No. 2 seed to a No. 5 seed. The Bulldogs, ironically, came back from a 16-point deficit to beat the Gators in Gainesville earlier this year. UF will begin play Thursday afternoon against the Ole Miss-Georgia winner.
Brooks 4-5 0-0 10, Montgomery 2-4 0-0 4, Richards 8-18 3-5 19, Maxey 1-11 4-4 7, Quickley 5-8 0-0 12, Juzang 4-6 0-0 10, Sestina 3-5 2-2 9. Totals 27-57 9-11 71.
Blackshear 0-4 0-0 0, Johnson 5-10 1-2 12, Lewis 5-8 8-10 19, Locke 5-11 1-1 14, Nembhard 3-7 0-0 7, O.Payne 3-4 0-0 6, Bassett 1-1 2-2 4, Jitoboh 0-0 1-2 1, Mann 1-3 0-0 2, Glover 2-2 0-0 5. Totals 25-50 13-17 70.
Halftime_Florida 40-30. 3-Point Goals_Kentucky 8-13 (Brooks 2-2, Quickley 2-2, Juzang 2-4, Sestina 1-2, Maxey 1-3), Florida 7-14 (Locke 3-8, Glover 1-1, Johnson 1-1, Lewis 1-1, Nembhard 1-3). Fouled Out_Quickley. Rebounds_Kentucky 27 (Richards 7), Florida 20 (Blackshear, Nembhard 5). Assists_Kentucky 9 (Maxey 7), Florida 13 (Nembhard 8). Total Fouls_Kentucky 18, Florida 13.