Gators Hold off the Cats

All season long, Billy Donovan has wondered how his team would respond with their backs against the wall. On Saturday night, he got a glimpse of what the Florida Gators are capable of after a thrilling overtime win against Kentucky, 81-70, at the O'Connell Center.

The Gators (16-3, 3-1 SEC) fought adversity all night, including foul trouble, scoring droughts, missed free throws and a 3-pointer by Kentucky (7-9, 1-2 SEC) to force the game into overtime. But the Gators fought through it all, becoming just the second team in history to win seven straight games against the Wildcats.

"I thought they showed great toughness and resiliency," Billy Donovan said. "I'm sure everyone was thinking about it when it went into overtime, how were these guys going to respond?"

Florida led by four points, 60-56, with 18-seconds left in regulation, but the Wildcats, fighting to turn their season around, came back and forced the overtime session when Ramel Bradley drained a 3-point shot with five seconds left.

"You have to give Ramel credit for making the shot," Donovan said. "I think we could have played it better defensively, but he still has to make the shot. We did think about fouling, and we were going to foul if they threw it out."

Bradley's game-tying shot was a heartbreaker for the Gators, but Nick Calathes and Walter Hodge hit back-to-back 3-pointers in the overtime period, giving the Florida a five-point lead with a minute left. Calathes then hit eight straight free throws to seal the win for the Gators.

"Nick's 3-point shot and Walter's 3-point shot really added life to our team," Donovan said. "I thought we started the first minute of overtime, and we were living in the past a little bit. When Nick made that 3, I thought we got back to fighting and competing. I'm just proud of what they were able to do. Coming out of Ole Miss where I didn't think we played good defense, we came in and we pressed, we did a better job of not giving up easy baskets."

The Gators held Kentucky to 40.7 percent shooting for the game. In the first half, Kentucky made just 9-of-23 shots, but only trailed by five at the half. After the Gators jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead, the Wildcats scored 10-straight, taking a 10-6 lead with 13:36 left in the first half.

Florida retook the lead behind a solid first half performance from Marreese Speights who scored nine points and grabed five rebounds. More importantly, Speights held Kentucky's talented big man Patrick Patterson to just six points on 2-of-7 shooting in the first half.

"I don't think you can play Patterson man-to-man," Donovan said. "I thought Marreese battled as did Dan [Werner], but we provided a lot of weakside help. They really try to throw the ball up to him and we tried to get some backside help, and we were able to deflect some balls, some passes and some shots. He's been shooting a high percentage this year, and even though he scored 15 points, it took 14 shoots to do that and that was a good thing."

Donovan benched Speights for most of the second half in Wednesday's loss to Ole Miss, but the Gator big man responded with a big night against Kentucky. Speights finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, plus he blocked four shots.

"I thought Marreese played well," Donovan said. "It was great to see him energized in a way he wasn't on Wednesday. I've said so many times that when you're playing a young team it's the consistency and giving the effort every single game."

"I finally felt real good," Speights said. "I just went out there and played the best that I could play. I didn't really get tired. I feel like this is my best game ever. I played a lot of minutes and I felt pretty good."

After starting the second half with a five-point lead, the Gators stretched it to 12 points, 42-30, in the first six minutes out of the locker room. Werner led the Gators, hitting a pair of jumpers and knocking down two free throws. Kentucky roared back, using a 16-4 run to tie the score at 46 when Jodie Meeks knocked down a pair of free throws.

"We really were in pretty good control but then got into some trouble," Donovan said. "We missed some fast-break opportunities. We missed some free throws. We had Speights in foul trouble and Werner in foul trouble and they started to establish Patterson in the second half."

The Gators had their chances to put away the Wildcats down the stretch, but Florida missed 2-of-8 free throws over a five-minute stretch, allowing Kentucky to stay close.

"I really thought that our lack of free throw shooting allowed them to chip into our lead," Donovan said. "We could have opened up the game a little bit but we missed some free throws."

Leading by two points with 16.6 seconds left in regulation, Lucas hit 1-of-2 free throws, giving Florida a 3-point lead. With 11 seconds left, Kentucky's Joe Crawford missed a 3-point attempt, but the rebound went out of bounds off of Speights. After a 30-second timeout, Bradley forced the game into overtime when he knocked down a 3.

"When you get hit in the face and you're five seconds away from winning in regulation and they send it to overtime, I saw the air come out of our guys," Donovan said. "I tired to get through and told them it's a five-minute game and you have to compete, but they weren't hearing that. The first minute, I don't know what would have happened had Nick not made that 3. He made that 3 and it energized our team. The big thing was that they scored first and we responded which got us going a little bit."

Florida outscored Kentucky 20-9 in the overtime session enroute to their third SEC victory.

"We wanted it," Calathes said. "This is what basketball players dream for - Florida versus Kentucky. We just had to learn to finish it out so we can win some games. We came together as a team. They made a huge shot to force it to overtime, and we just fought back in overtime."

Despite struggling from the line and turning the ball over a couple of times, Calathes scored a game-high 24 points. He also dished out eight assists in 42 minutes played.

"It was the first time I ever saw Nick be affected by the way he was playing," Donovan said. "He had some turnovers in the second half. He missed a lot of free throws, but in fairness to him I played him way too many minutes."

Jai Lucas had to leave the game briefly after coming down hard on his left knee. Donovan thinks the knee may be hyper-extended, but Lucas did return and hit some big free throws down the stretch. He finished with seven points and one assist.

The Gators hit the road again this week to face South Carolina on Wednesday night.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Chris Chmielenski


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