Florida shot 16 free throws in the first half, Kentucky shot none. The Wildcats only made five more shots than Florida in the first half and with no free throw attempts they still led at half by four points. The reason… Florida went 6 of 16 from the charity stripe in the half.
“I’m at a loss with free throws,” Florida head coach Mike White said after the game. “This is my 16th year coaching and we’ve shot more free throws this year (in practice) by far and away than any team I’ve been around. We’ll go 3-4 drills and get to the foul line and shoot pressure free throws. We’ve gotten to where now in the last 8-9 weeks consistently as a team we make 80-90%, if we don’t make 80% we run. We always shoot them when we’re winded and lathered and overall I think it has helped us. Obviously tonight, we really struggled and it was a huge factor in the game.
White was really frustrated after the contest and searching for answers that won’t come.
“I feel for our guys, I thought we came out and played really hard,” he said. “I thought we played with a ton of energy. If we just shoot it decently from the foul line, decently for us, you make another couple of threes, a couple of the chippies in the paint, I know of at least one missed dunk. All those offensive rebounds, the attack mode and confidence of which we played, five turnovers against a pressure team, we would have had a great offensive game. We just didn’t convert.”
Lately the Florida defense has faltered, but White’s first take after the game was that his team played good defense and Kentucky was just better offensively. The Wildcats shot 52% for the game and 70% from three-point range hitting on seven of 10 shots behind the arc.
The Wildcats had five players score in double figures led by freshman Jamal Murray’s 21 and Tyler Ulis’ 19. Murray riddled the Gators for 35 in the first meeting and was held to just three points in the first half, but Ulis was dishing out assists and other Kentucky players that haven’t been big pieces of the offensive puzzle stepped up.
“Our defense hasn’t been quite as good,” White said. “But, sometimes you play a good offense that is really playing well. Defensively tonight for us, Isaac Humphries hits an 18 footer. The scout for us was to let Isaiah Briscoe shoot jump shots and keep him out of the paint and he makes all of them, he was terrific. Skal Labissiere (who started his first game) hits a few jump shots. Our defensive philosophy is to force tough two’s, but even if they aren’t tough to force two’s. They only had nine offensive rebounds, we forced 13 turnovers. They hit a bunch of jump shots. That 53% I thought would translate against most of the teams in the country.”
Ulis was special, 19 points, 11 assists and he just controlled the game and made his teammates better throughout.
“I think he’s arguably the best point guard in the country,” White said. “You can’t rattle him. He’s extremely poised and intelligent, like the foul he drew at the end of the game, in my mind I am mad because we tried not to foul him, but he’s just smart and knows how to draw fouls. He got in front of Dorian and sold the foul. I saw him barking at his teammates during the game. He’s great defensively. I’ve seen him switch on to 3’s, 4’s, and 5’s and not be exposed. With the frame he has, I think it speaks to his physical and mental toughness.
Florida did get a monster team from John Egbunu who was the benefactor of nice passing from guards Chris Chiozza (4 assists) and Kasey Hill (4) along with forward Dorian Finney-Smith (5). Egbunu scored a career high 27 points including nine dunks on the night.
“It’s just the way they defend us,” White said of the outburst. “They get out and pressure. First of all they use ball screens at a higher level… our bigs including John used better ball screens. We got really good rubs to get in the paint. Our guards drew two defenders a few times and got him some good dump offs. Right out of transition he did a good job of rim running and just ducking in. I thought our guards did a good job of looking for him then, before their defense was really set. Most of our offense tonight was early offense.”
Still, the big man was receiving the ball much better than he has been and we can see spurts in his growth.
“I think it’s big, he’s just progressed,” White said. “He’s developing and it should give us more confidence to throw it in there. He’s catching the ball with more confidence, he’s ducking in a little bit harder. I think after a game like this you expect your guards and wings to do a better job of looking in there and feeding him at the right times and the right spots. Obviously we have to convert at a higher level at the foul line.
This team doesn’t have much time left to prove they belong in the NCAA Tournament. They have let a few close games get away from them and now every win counts big. Is the pressure building for them?
“I’m sure it is a factor for a lot of teams, it might be a factor for this team,” White said of the pressure. “We tried avoiding it for a while and I want to say it was after Vanderbilt here at home, we figured (our) guys were probably thinking about it and hearing about it. At that point we addressed it and at least they were getting my message rather than other people’s messages.
“They knew the LSU game was a really big opportunity. We came out of the locker room all jacked up in Baton Rouge and never got it going defensively.
“We have a chance to finish .500 in this league which would be an accomplishment to finish .500 at this point in this league. It is a very difficult league. Then we take our show on the road in the conference tournament and see what happens. That is all we can do at this point. Put all of eggs in that basket at Missouri. Hopefully we have a lot of this offensive flow carry over with improved free throw and three-point shooting and we have to find a way to defend them at a higher level. If we can get that one, which will be very difficult, we can be in a position where hopefully we can make some noise and it means something in the SEC tournament.”