Sure, the possibility of beating Big Blue was on the minds of all 11,171 at the O-Dome when the Gators took the floor Saturday night to face 8th-ranked Kentucky with all its potential first round NBA prospects. Everybody felt Florida (18-5, 8-2 SEC) was capable of winning but the Gators were 0-3 against higher ranked teams this season. This was huge for Florida and maybe just another game for Kentucky (18-6, 8-2 SEC).
So blowing the doors off Big Blue? Only in your dreams.
Well, dreams have this funny habit of turning into reality. The way the Gators played, you would have thought they were the team with all the prospects and all the hype and Kentucky was the team trying to elbow its way back into the national picture after a couple of hiatus years.
Florida 88, Kentucky 66 might have been the last thing the Gator Nation expected but not the Florida basketball team and it’s been that way ever since those back-to-back losses against South Carolina and Vanderbilt what seems light years ago. This was the fourth straight blowout win for UF, the fourth straight game when the Gators put it all together on both ends of the court.
In explaining the difference between those 0-2 Gators who looked like lost balls in the tall grass to the ones that have gone 4-0 in destroying (in order) LSU, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kentucky, Devin Robinson pointed out how things have changed since a players only meeting on the Monday after the loss to Vandy.
“We had to find our identity again,” Robinson said. “We lost track of who we were as a culture and as a program during that 2-game losing streak. We regrouped and talked out what we needed to do to be successful and now we are starting to get locked in.”
Locked in is the best way to describe Robinson and point guard Kasey Hill. Robinson scored 16 points including 3-4 from the 3-point line and he grabbed 9 rebounds to go with 2 blocked shots. Hill, not known as a jump shooter, found the range outside early and often, finishing the night with a game-high 21 points to go with 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 block and 1 steal.
“Those were shots that I have been working on all summer and in practice,” Hill said.
Kentucky’s De'Aaron Fox, charged with defending Hill, commented, “He [Hill] made shots. He got in the lane. He’s one of the quickest guards in the country. He makes tough lauyps … The big part was he was making jumpers and when he’s making jumpers it’s extremely hard to guard him.”
When Robinson and Hill weren’t scoring, the Gators found offense from other places. KeVaughn Allen chipped in with 12 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals while Canyon Barry came off the bench to contribute 14 points.
And it’s not like it was all about the scoring, although the Gators shot a torrid 66.7% in the second half to finish the game at 48.4% (30-62). The Gators dominated Kentucky on the inside, finishing with a 54-29 rebound margin against a team averaging 40.8 rebounds per game. The Gators went to the offensive glass for a 17-6 rebounding margin, which contributed mightily to a 17-7 margin in second chance points.
This was total dominance, surprising perhaps to even the most optimistic of Gator fans and certainly a shock to the Big Blue Nation.
“This is just another win for us,” Robinson said. “We’re going to keep our winning streak going and doing the little things we need to do to be successful – go to practice, play hard and win the next one.”
After a first half in which the Gators were having problems hanging onto the ball (12 turnovers) and throwing up more SCUDS than makes (12-35 for 34.3% shooting overall and 6-19 for 31.6% from the 3-point line), the 8-point halftime margin seemed flimsy at best. When John Egbunu and Kevarrius Hayes were in the game, Kentucky got nothing around the rim and Florida threatened a first half beatdown, but they both picked up their second fouls and had to sit the last few minutes of the half. It was 34-26 at the half, a precarious lead from Florida’s standpoint, a workable margin from Kentucky’s.
“I didn’t feel like we were playing 8 points better than them,” Florida coach Mike White commented.
Five of those 8 points disappeared in a hurry when Kentucky narrowed the gap to 37-34 on a 3-point play by De'Aaron Fox with 17:46 to go in the game. Typically, this is a point when Kentucky goes on one of those patented scoring runs that is like sharks in a feeding frenzy, but Florida doused those flames in a hurry, getting back into a defensive groove that sparked a 10-2 run to stretch the lead out to 47-37 with 14:47 to go in the game.
Kentucky got back within 8 but Florida was having no part in opening the door for a Kentucky rally and it had everything to do with defensive intensity. The Gators swarmed the Wildcat shooters (Malik Monk, averaging 22.4 points per game, managed only 11 on 4-14 shooting) and whenever the ‘Cats tried to pound it inside to big man Edrice Adebayo (averaging 13.2 points, scored just 9), he was surrounded by Gators who gave him no room to operate.
The Gators got hands in the passing lane and deflected balls. They overplayed and made the Wildcats set up the offense well beyond their comfort zone. When Kentucky couldn’t beat the Gators on the backboards, Florida flipped long outlet passes to Hill, who was an unstoppable streak and to Chris Chiozza, who followed up a triple-double against Missouri on Thursday with 9 rebounds and 9 assists. Hill and Chiozza combined for 15 assists and only 5 turnovers.
“We were very good defensively against one of the best offensive teams in the country, and in my opinion, the best transition offensive team in the country,” White said.
What the Gators have done defensively in outscoring their last four opponents by 128 points goes back to that players only team meeting on the Monday after the loss to Vandy.
“We had to regroup, we had a meeting,” Robinson said. “We discussed a lot of things people need to do for us to be successful and we’re just starting to get bought in right now.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari conceded that the Gators beat his team every which way possible.
“Florida outplayed us, outcoached us, they did everything sideways,” Calipari said. “They deserved to win. They wanted it worse than we wanted it.”
GAME NOTES: Next up for the Gators is Georgia (13-10, 4-6 SEC) in Athens Tuesday night. White says the Gators will “have to play as good as we did tonight to have a chance and Georgia is hungry for a win … Florida held Kentucky to 23-61 shooting overall (37.7%) and just 33% (6-18) from the 3-point line … Kentucky finished with a negative assist to turnover margin against the Florida defense, finishing with 7 assists against 13 turnovers … Florida outscored the Wildcats 17-11 off turnovers, 18-8 on the fast break and 32-30 in the paint.