Florida's Casey Prather goes up amid three UK players for a pivotal offensive rebound late in Saturday's victory over UK.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — "We're not ready to win that kind of game," University of Kentucky coach John Calipari said after his team lost to No. 3-ranked Florida 69-59 Saturday night, and the words kind of hung there for just a second, because it didn't take a lot of calculation to figure out what they mean.
Not ready to win that kind of game. In Rupp Arena. In front of the sixth-largest crowd in the building's history. With ESPN's College GameNight in attendance. With two weeks until March.
And the obvious concern is this: In the NCAA Tournament, they're all that kind of game. They're exactly like the game UK and Florida played Saturday night, except that the crowds aren't quite so blue.
The Wildcats aren't ready, and the next time they face a team that's going to be NCAA Tournament-caliber will be on the road, when they visit Florida in the regular-season finale. And then again, maybe, in the SEC Tournament. Chances to prove they are ready are growing slim.
All year the pundits have been saying, and I've been saying, they're getting closer, they're improving, give them time.
But Saturday night was time. Calipari said as much after the Wildcats won at Auburn last week. He said the exact words: "It's time." It was time for the Wildcats to beat somebody.
And not only was it the time, but it was the place. This game set up perfectly for UK. Florida was coming into Rupp, where it hadn't won in seven years. It was coming in off a tough, physical game at Tennessee. The stage was set. Dickie V and Jay Bilas were in the house.
UK was favored, for goodness sakes. Forget the rankings, Vegas had UK by two. After the game, Florida senior Patric Young talked about the Gators being underdogs, and implied that they felt a bit of disrespect because of that. When a writer questioned how the Florida players could feel like underdogs when they were the higher-ranked team, Young flashed a kind of "you-know-we're-not-supposed-to-talk-about-pointspread" smiles.
Not only was it the time, and the place, but the Wildcats had the opportunity. They were up by seven points with the arena rocking and 11 minutes to play.
Then Florida did this — it scored on the rest of its possessions. Every, single one. In 13 trips, it scored 31 points. That's pretty good offensive execution, and offensive rebounding, and free throw shooting. Those are the building blocks of late-game victories.
Watch it unfold:
1. Patrick Young jumper and free throw. 2. Scottie Wilbekin three-pointer. 3. Young jumper and free throw, Florida leads by one. 4. Two technical foul free throws by Wilbekin, then a Casey Prather jumper. 5. Young jumper. 6. Prather, two free throws. 7. Wilbekin, two free throws, Florida up four, 5:05 left. 8. Michael Frazier three-pointer off an offensive rebound by Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida up five with 4:16 left. 9. Wilbekin, two free throws, 2:54 left. 10. Wilbekin, two free throws, Florida up seven, 2:13 left. 11. Prather, one free throw, after a big offensive rebound. Florida up six. 12. Wilbekin, one of two free throws. 13. Prather layup and free throw.
"They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch," Calipari said. ". . . That experience of how to finish off a game."
UK played good enough defense to win. It wasn't great defense. Florida shot 60 percent in the second half (12 for 20). It gave up far too much down the stretch. It didn't rebound with the game in the balance. The backbreaker came with 1:23 left when Willie Cauley-Stein deflected a runner in the lane from Wilbekin. With three UK players around him, Prather skied for the rebound and came down with it, and was fouled.
Ballgame. It was all over but the running out of the clock, which Florida was able to do after a Prather steal, his fourth of the game, two more than UK's entire team, with 31 seconds remaining. The final half-minute, UK didn't try. It accepted defeat. John Calipari was headed for the postgame handshake before the clock had even stopped.
UK played good enough defense, but its offense deserted it when it needed it the most. A few shots didn't fall. A few free throws. Defense may win championships, but at some point, you have to be able to score. The best teams in the country will find a way to pick apart even the best defenses, and you have to find away to score.
Afterward, the Florida celebration could be heard outside its locker room walls, and it went on for an extended time.
Now think about this: There were seniors on that Florida team who had been trying to win in Rupp Arena for four years. Most of Kentucky's players have played in Rupp Arena for barely four months.
Now think about this, too, and tell me if I'm wrong. It sounded to me like winning in Rupp meant more to Florida's veterans than it did to UK's freshmen. That's not a knock on anyone. It's not saying anyone didn't care. It's just saying that the more experienced players had a better appreciation for the magnitude of the moment.
"It was surreal," Patric Young said. "I couldn't believe it. When we were walking off the court it didn't seem real. It was so hard for us. Last year, we let it slip away. Years before we weren't even in the game. It is huge, especially when you are the underdog. I was really thankful we were able to get it done."
Contrast with Andrew Harrison, UK's freshman point guard who had one of his better games, 20 points, four rebounds, four assists before fouling out late. He was asked about losing at home, in front of such a large crowd, and with a 22-game home winning streak.
"It's the same," he said. "Losing is losing no matter where it is. You hate to lose in front of your home crowd, but they still supported us the whole way."
Now to clarify a thing or two. Nobody is saying this UK team can't still make a run. I think everyone, for the most part, acknowledges that it can. But now it must do it the hard way. It is going to have to win on the road. It is going to have to win with a worse NCAA Tournament seed.
Not insurmountable. Also not Calipari's primary concern right now. With a younger team, the danger is keeping their eyes off mock drafts and on the real world.
The Wildcats did some good things. Their first-half defense was solid, though Florida missed a slew of open three-pointers. They had the game where they wanted it heading into the final 10 minutes. Then Florida went 7 of 10 from the field and 15 of 17 from the line.
A quick digression — a team that finishes like that, in this setting, against this Kentucky team, has stamped its Final Four credibility. This team, if nobody believed it before, though most people seemed to, is a legitimate championship contender.
And Kentucky? Calipari said it.
"We lost to a good team," he said. "I'm not happy. We lost to a good team. But we had our chances and we're not ready to win that kind of game, and I told them that. So we've got to understand and listen and not blame each other. Take responsibility. If a guy outplayed you, admit it, the guy outplayed me."
Calipari will probably have a few moves of his own he'd like to get back. Maybe he could've called a timeout or two more down the stretch to settle his team. UK didn't show zone late, though it has been one of its more effective looks. In fact, UK showed zone one possession in the second half and Donovan immediately called a 30-second timeout. UK was back man-to-man after the timeout. And Calipari picked up a second-half technical foul. UK led by a point when the T was called — and Calipari said postgame he had no idea what he did or said to earn it.
After a four-point trip by the Gators, UK never led again. Could the technical have changed the course of the game?
"It could have," Calipari said. "It could have."
"You know, again, down the stretch we don't talk and we give Scott a three," Calipari said. "Just talk to each other. I got him, you got him. We back away and look at each other, and no one speaks and they make the three. That's what an inexperienced team does down the stretch. But I'm proud of the guys. I'm happy how they fought. High‑level game, a lot of intensity to the game. Lot of hype to the game, and we performed. They put themselves in a position to win."
But they didn't. Now they have put themselves into a difficult postseason position. They may yet have the talent and time to turn their fortunes in the right direction. But they're still a ways off. And March is looming big in the window.
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