It is never an easy out when you play at Rupp Arena and against the competition like the Kentucky Wildcats (24-5, 14-2 SEC) bring to the table. With starters Kasey Hill, Kevarrius Hayes, and Kevaughn Allen along with top reserve Chris Chiozza in early and often foul trouble, the Gators had a hard time keeping a unit on the floor that could run with the Wildcats throughout the game.
The Gators (23-6, 13-3 SEC) got off to a hot start and an 18-6 lead with just under seven minutes gone in the game with a quick burst out of Allen who was responsible for 11 of those 18 points. Allen would add just three more in the first half as the fouls started to add up.
The Gators played pretty well defensively in the first half outside of all the foul calls. They held the Wildcats leading scorer Malik Monk to just three points in the first stanza. Monk would change that quickly in the second half and by the end of the game, the star freshman finished with 33.
“He’s got an unbelievable stroke,” Florida head coach Mike White said of Monk in a postgame interview on the Gators IMG Radio Network. “He’s really fast off the ball. They do a great job of setting screens for him and getting him open. If you crowd him too much he has explosion to get by you and knows how to draw fouls. Then he goes 5-7 from three and I’m not sure he had a lot of space on many of them, that’s just how good of a player he is.
Allen countered with 24 points of his own getting the 14 in the first half. The Gators sophomore and leading scorer had 50 points for the week with his 26 against South Carolina on Tuesday.
“Not a bad week for KeVaughn, (he was) really good again,” White said. “(He) had to continue fighting down the stretch defensively as well. He was good and had a few guys that played pretty well. Just overall we didn’t do a good enough job on Malik Monk and that’s easier said than done. I know he’s one of the best offensive players in the country.”
With the score knotted at 28 all at halftime, the Gators and Wildcats traded baskets for a bit until junior Devin Robinson (9 pts., 11 rebs.) went on a seven point spree and gave the Gators a 45-37 lead with just over four minutes gone in the second half. Senior guard Kasey Hill made a layup with 12:42 left in regulation for another eight point lead and 52-44 score.
But the Wildcats would chip away from that point led by Monk and freshman center Eldrice Adebayo (18 pts., 15 rebs.) and eventually build to their largest lead of the game which was the final 10 point margin.
“Just didn’t do enough,” White said. “Didn’t play well enough against a really good team who plays even better at home in an electric environment. Malik took the game over. I thought he was incredible.
“I thought we were the better team for the first 15 minutes of the game and they were the better team for the last 25. They controlled the second half. The better team won today, Kentucky was very good.
Outside of Monk going off, the Gators had a hard time getting to the foul line in the game. In an area where the team has improved tremendously, they had the least number of attempts (6) and made free throws (4) of any game this season. In contrast, the Wildcats were 22-of-27 from the charity stripe.
“You have to find a way to get to the foul line more,” White said. “They were terrific in getting to the foul line 27 times. We got to the foul line 6, so we have to get better in that regard.”
Both teams had two in double figures with Monk and Adebayo for Kentucky and Allen and senior forward Justin Leon (13 pts.) for the Gators.
Florida won the rebound advantage by 20 in the game played in Gainesville three weeks ago. Saturday afternoon, they lost that battle 48-30. It didn’t help that Hayes was on the bench for 10 minutes of the first half and seven minutes of the second half with foul trouble.
“We didn’t do a good job on the glass, we got out-rebounded by 18 against a team that we out-rebounded three weeks ago in our place significantly,” White said. “Very lopsided numbers there and kind of unique in that regard.”
The Gators committed only six turnovers and had 12 assists while forcing 16 turnovers from the Wildcats. Usually those are numbers that lead to big victories. But an offense that was missing parts and missing baskets in the second half wasn’t able to take advantage of those positives.
“I thought we had some clean looks in the mid-second half, if one or two go down it may have been a different story down the stretch,” White said. “They capitalized in getting out in transition offense off of some of our misses and again Malik Monk going on some of those scoring spurts by himself.
UP NEXT: The Gators will head home Wednesday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 to play Arkansas (21-7, 10-5 SEC) a team who they beat in Fayetteville 81-72 back in December to start their SEC slate. White knows they have to put the Kentucky game behind them quickly.
“We just talked to our guys about it,” he said. “We split with (the Wildcats) and where we’re behind is we dropped one at home (vs. Vanderbilt). So we’ve got a chance to not allow that to happen again and finish strong on senior night this week.
“We’ve got to take care of business against a red hot Arkansas team who is playing really well. They’re very difficult to defend in their own right and then we have to go back on the road again. So, it’s another very difficult week for us.”