If you're looking for a reason why the Gators lost to Kentucky Tuesday night at Rupp Arena in Lexington, look no further to that assortment of little things. Kentucky did the little things. That's why fourth-ranked Kentucky (18-2, 9-0 SEC) won the game, 69-66. Florida didn't do the little things and that's why enough bad things happened that the Gators lost.
This was a game that the Gators (14-6, 6-3 SEC) could have won if only they had maintained their focus and done all the little things. The Gators did box out for most of the first half. They played great defense, too. They passed the ball to the inside and allowed the inside game to open the three-ball for Anthony Roberson (15 first half points). Because they were doing all these things and doing them well, they had Kentucky on the ropes.
Until the last two minutes of the first half, the Gators looked like the team that had clobbered Alabama last Saturday, not the team that got hammered by Mississippi State one week earlier. The Gators scrambled all over the floor defensively, rarely giving the Wildcats any kind of open look. When the ball went up, the Gators boxed out so Kentucky didn't get two and three shots at the rim. Passes were crisp and on the mark so Kentucky wasn't getting transition baskets off its defense.
That's why the Gators had a 35-24 with 2:18 remaining in the half, but that's also the same point that Florida let Kentucky get the momentum going into the half with a couple of very lazy passes that let the Wildcats score five very quick points, Instead of a double digit halftime lead and a silenced Rupp crowd, the Gators had a shaky 36-29 lead at the half, and the Kentucky crowd sensed that things would be different in the second half.
If the Gators needed a wakeup call at the beginning of the second half, they should have gotten it when Al Horford picked up his third foul at the 18:30 mark. Horford did a double naught in the first half --- zero points and zero rebounds. He got a quick foul less than three minutes into the game, sat awhile, then got on the floor for a couple more minutes before he got his second.
Just like the Mississippi State game, the frustration of two foul calls that were of the ticky tack variety got to Horford. He's just a freshman and he hasn't learned to play with poise when the foul calls aren't going his way. That's a skill that comes only with the kind of experience he doesn't have yet. He got five rebounds in the second half and toward the end of the game, played noticeably better, but his final stat line of one point and five rebounds pales to the nearly 8 points and 8 rebounds per game he's been averaging.
When Horford went out with foul trouble, no one answered the bell for the Gators to give help to David Lee on the inside. Lee had nine points and seven rebounds on the night. He could have had a lot more if Florida had found some balance on the inside. With Lee the only inside threat, the Wildcats doubled down on him, effectively putting an end to Florida's game in the paint. The Gators lead the SEC in rebound margin (13.2 per game), but on this night, Kentucky won the battle of the boards, 30-23, and they held Florida's four-man post rotation to a grand total of 16 points.
When Horford got his third foul, the Wildcats seized the momentum and began to pound the ball inside to Randolph Morris, a 6-10, 265-pound bruiser of the freshman variety. Morris used to spend his summers playing alongside Dwight Howard on an AAU team in Atlanta. For a few minutes at the beginning of the second half, he took over the game and the Gators didn't have an answer.
Florida lost its poise at that point and the Gators would lose it one more. The Wildcats got a 13-2 run to take a 47-45 lead. Florida fought back, taking the lead on a Lee Humphrey three, 48-47, and Matt Walsh would hit a three at the 10:10 mark to give the Gators their final lead of the night, 52-50.
Instead of regaining their poise at that juncture, the Gators lost it again. Anthony Roberson seemed to get caught up in a head game with Wildcat freshman guard Ravi Rondo, and over a six minute stretch, Rondo and the Wildcats won that battle. Rondo scored six of Kentucky's points on a 14-2 run, dominating the game with his defense and passing. At the 3:37 mark, Kentucky had built a 64-64 lead.
Florida fought back valiantly in the final 3:30 of the game to hush up the Rupp crowd and get the Gators back into it, but the poise and intensity that was shown at the end was exactly what was missing in those two previous runs that let the game get away from them.
When the Gators watch the film on this one, they're going to turn green when they take a look at all the little things they didn't do, and it's all those little things that added up on Kentucky's ledger to lift the Wildcats over the top. Florida will see all those moments when they lost their focus and forgot to block out, or someone didn't switch off on a defensive assignment, or when someone floated a lazy pass that was picked off and turned into an easy bucket.
They'll see all those things that they did wrong, and if they're really watching the film intensely, they'll see that Kentucky won for the same reasons the Gators lost. The Wildcats did all the little things.
That's why they're Kentucky, and until the Gators learn to stay focused and stay within themselves consistently, game in and game out, the Gators will be that team that can't always string enough consistent moments together to finish off what they started in critical moments.