Whitley: Gators came up clutch in late going to down Wildcats
Admit it, you feared the worst.
There were five minutes left in Florida's game against Kentucky. The Gators led by three points, but you'd seen this movie before.
In the final few scenes, Florida forgets its lines and the opponent rides triumphantly into the sunset.
Not this time.
The Gators remember their lines. Or more precisely, they remembered how to take care of the ball. The result was a 71-67 win that might do a lot for Florida's psyche.
I say "might" because you never know with this team. Just when it seems to be taking three steps forward it takes two-and-half steps back.
One of its biggest flaws is turnovers. Going into Saturday's game at Rupp Arena, the Gators ranked 260th in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio. That's a killer stat at crunch time, as anyone whose watched this team can attest.
Florida came in with a two-game winning streak, but they were sloppy victories. That's why it was time to cover your eyes with five minutes left.
The Gators led 62-59, but they turned the ball over and Kentucky got a fast-break dunk.
Next possession — ditto.
It was the 10th turnover of the half. If Rupp Arena had had a crowd Saturday, the roof would have been shaking.
COVID-19 protocols took care of that problem. As for the Gators' problem, Tre and Tyree Appleby were the elixir.
Mann hit a clutch 3-pointer and some free throws, while Appleby made a dazzling defensive play when he threw the ball off a Kentucky player's leg as he was falling out of bounds.
"We had a couple of turnovers at the end," Mann said. "But I feel like the last two minutes the whole team took care of the ball a little more, and we had a little bit more composure."
Does that mean composure is here to stay? Who knows with this team. But extending a winning streak by beating Kentucky is never a bad thing.
"To win at Rupp Arena under any circumstances is a pretty neat thing," coach Mike White said.
To be fair, this is not your father's Kentucky team. It might be closer to your great-great-grandfather's Kentucky team.
The last time the Wildcats had a losing season and single-digit wins was 1927. That team went 3-13, though one of those victories was over the Gators. Coach Basil Hayden was relieved of his duties after one season.
Kentucky's only other losing season in the past 94 years came in 1989. Coach Eddie Sutton resigned after that 13-19 clunker.
Normally, it's not polite to kick a program when it's down. But this opportunity literally comes around about as often as Halley's Comet. And there's a special joy in watching a John Calipari team flail like a freshly-caught fish on a hot pier.
The Wildcats had the No. 1 recruiting class, but Calipari's One-and-Done approach finally backfired this year. First-year players like Cam'ron Fletcher, Lance Ware and Dontaie Allen played like rookies.
But talent is talent, and Kentucky's slowly figuring it out. Calipari's team came in with a three-game winning streak, including a 15-point win over Tennessee.
"We faced some difficult times this year. But we’ve weathered the storm, and I think we’re coming out the other side better than we came in," guard Riley Welch said.
Now things are a little more stormy in Lexington, though don't expect Calipari to go the way of Hayden anytime soon.
As for the Gators, is the turnover spell finally broken?
"It's getting better every game," Mann said. "As long as we do that, we've got a chance to win every game."
You still have to fear the worst in the final five minutes. But after games like Saturday, you can also cover your eyes and hope for the best.
— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley