Julius Mays made two free throws to ice Kentucky's 61-57 victory over Florida Saturday.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) – What did you need to see from this University of Kentucky basketball team?
I know the list: The toughness to drop into a defensive stance and stay there over the final five minutes? The poise to make Game Over free throws? The eagerness to throw the necessary sharp elbows to collect loose ball rebounds?
Can't forget this: A signature win against an opponent ranked first in two college basketball computer power polls and sixth in another?
Check. Check. Check. Check out what people are saying about John Calipari's team now that the Wildcats (22-10) delivered a 61-57 victory over Florida, the Southeastern Conference champions, on Saturday in Rupp Arena.
"Can they beat anybody?" Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Absolutely. They're talented enough … I think that they're good enough talent wise to play with anybody."
"At our best, we are an NCAA Tournament team," Calipari said. "When we're not at our best, we're not very good."
In other words, for at least a day, the Wildcats are back on the bright side of the debate about which teams will make the 2013 NCAA Tournament as at-large teams. The value of the Florida win is already on file. UK moved from 27th to 23rd in the Sagarin ratings and from 44 to 35 in the Pomeroy numbers. They sit at No. 50 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com has the Wildcats safely in the field ahead of three other at-large teams.
The debate won't end unless Kentucky wins the SEC Tournament in Nashville next week. They'll begin play Friday night as the Number 2 seed at 7:30 (EDT) against either Arkansas or Vanderbilt.
But the Wildcats earned a credential that some questionable candidates lack:
A victory against a team ranked first in two computer power rankings (Pomeroy and Sagarin) and sixth in the RPI.
No wonder they dialed the volume to the max on "Don't Stop Believing," as the teams wandered off the court.
With 7:36 to play, Kentucky trailed 57-50 after Erik Murphy and Scottie Wilbekin made back-to-back three-point shots for the Gators.
Check the final score. Florida did not score another point. They missed their final 11 shots. Some of it was Kentucky defense. Some of it was Florida missing shots that a Top 10 team should not miss. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas called it "a gift."
Five of Florida's 12 turnovers came during that closing stretch. The Gators melted down the same way they melted down against Arizona in December or against Louisville in the NCAA West Regional last March. It's an issue for Team Donovan.
The frantic finish was enough to make Calipari reassess his thoughts about this team – again. First, he said they were young. Then he said they were not coachable. Then he said he had not done a good job coaching them.
This time he said his mistake was not demanding that this team be coachable.
"The other night I said I had not done a very good job of coaching them," Calipari said. "It's because I haven't been tough enough.
"If I let them do what they want to do, what's it look like? Not very good."
Calipari's other motivational move came at practice Friday. He gave every player a list of things he had to do for Kentucky to win the game. It was not a very long list – two tasks per guy. Nobody left practice until the team was convinced each guy was going to do his job.
It showed. Donovan thought Kentucky pushed the Gators around on the first two possessions. He called a timeout 49 seconds into the first half – and then another one 87 seconds into the second half. Florida did not seem emotionally invested.
Kentucky led 11-2. Florida came back to lead, 29-24. The back-and-forth continued – until it looked like the Gators were ready to wrap both hands around this game midway through the second half.
Didn't happen. Kentucky defended, even with Willie Cauley-Stein playing with four fouls. Archie Goodwin attacked the rim, leading the Wildcats with 16 points. Alex Poythress earned a sincere hug from Calipari for his 12 rebounds, not his nine points.
Julius Mays wanted the ball out of the final timeout so he could make the two clinching free throws in the final nine seconds. Demanded it, in fact.
"Like I said earlier in the week, it was do or die," Mays said. "We needed this win more than anything to keep our season alive. It gives us a good feeling going into the NCAA Tournament."
Is Kentucky an NCAA Tournament team?
"I don't know," Donovan said. "They certainly have a lot individual pieces. There's no question about that."
There is also no question Kentucky's season remains considerably more interesting than it would have been if the Wildcats had lost this game.