Its message: The road has been rocky, but a recovery may be in sight.
Owners of a disappointing 3-3 Southeastern Conference mark and facing a self-proclaimed "make or break" game at Florida, the Cats flexed their muscles with a thrilling 70-68 victory that dripped of intensity.
Keith Bogans, who lost his starting job due to his inconsistent offensive play this season, responded off the bench with a game-high 20 points and hit three important 3-pointers to lead No. 10 Kentucky (14-5, 4-3 SEC). The Cats also got 19 points and 10 rebounds from senior forward Tayshaun Prince, who also hit a trio of treys and buried a running jumper under heavy pressure with 47 seconds left to give UK a three-point lead.
Fifth-ranked Florida (15-4, 4-3 SEC) suffered its third consecutive loss as Brett Nelson missed a 12-foot jumper with three seconds left and Cliff Hawkins secured the rebound for the Cats.
"This is a meaningful win and gets us back on track,'' Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "This shows that we can win a close game in a hostile arena. We're maturing, and if Keith is scoring, and he and Tayshaun are playing well together, then we're unstoppable.
"I was at my wits' end with Keith," Smith added. "He played well against Notre Dame and then slipped the last couple of games. But I trust Keith, and I believe in him and his all-around attitude. But I expect him to be a leader and I needed him to lead. I know he's capable of it. But to get the most out of him you have to challenge him all of the time.''
"Keith was more enthusiastic before the game because he knew we needed him to make something happen,'' Prince said.
But that would come after watching the first five minutes from the bench. As Smith indicated on Monday, he chose to insert forwards Chuck Hayes and Erik Daniels and center Marquis Estill into the starting lineup in the place of Bogans, fellow guard Gerald Fitch (who had been late for a team meeting on Sunday) and the struggling Jules Camara.
The move appeared to energize the entire team. Hayes and Daniels held up to the Gators' pressure and the rowdy O'Connell Center crowd early on, while Bogans and Camara responded well off the bench. Camara, a 6-11 junior who had not scored only four points in his last 38 minutes of action, delivered six of his eight points in the first half to help UK hang within 31-30 at the break.
The Cats had trailed by as many as seven, largely due to Nelson draining his first four 3-point attempts coming off the Gator bench.
Bogans opened the second half with a 3-pointer and Cliff Hawkins had a pair of third-chance baskets to give UK a 37-33 edge early in the second half. The rebounding work was a sign of things to come. After being outrebounded by one in the first, half, the Cats finished with a whopping 45-31 edge.
Kentucky's momentum continued as part of a 17-8 run to open the half. That gave the Cats their biggest margin of the night (47-39), but Florida countered with a 20-8 run to go up 59-55 with 6:25 remaining. James White and Nelson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to close the spurt and help get the Gators back into the game.
But unlike previous games this season, the Cats wouldn't cave under the pressure. A tip-in by Estill, a steal and runout jam by Bogans and an inside basket by Hayes put UK up 61-59.
"We didn't panic," Smith said. "When you're on the road, that's critical."
The lead was 64-63 with under 90 seconds left, when Bogans buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key to put the Cats up four. Florida's Orien Greene answered with a trey of his own before Prince hit his clutch running jumper.
Prince and Bogans missed three straight free throws with under 24 seconds left, but the Gators' Udonis Haslem returned the favor by missing two as well.
Hawkins hit one and missed the second intentionally with 0.7 seconds left to seal the hard-fought victory.
"Give Kentucky a lot of credit," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "They were facing some adversity the way we were and found a way to win... I thought it was a great job by their two big players, Prince and Bogans."
Bogans and Prince weren't the only heroes for UK. Hayes responded to his first collegiate start with 10 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal. Hawkins was unflappable against Florida's vaunted full-court pressure. After committing four turnovers in the first half, he had none in the second.
"Chuck Hayes and his effort, the double-double by Tayshaun showing a gutsy effort, and Keith bouncing back the way he did... Those were all great things to see," Smith said. "And Cliff was a big key tonight, playing under control. The press didn't hurt us.
"It was a fun game for us."
"I'm glad coach Smith had the faith in me to start me and have me in there down the stretch in crucial situations," Hayes said. "That right there told me I have to get in there and do what I have to do. Bringing the energy is what he wanted me to do, to attack the glass and defend (Matt) Bonner and Haslem. That's all I tried to do tonight."
Florida was led by Nelson with 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting from long range, but he missed 11 shots on the night and also committed three turnovers. The Cats held Haslem to only 14 points (2 in the first half) and eight rebounds, and Bonner to just nine.
Kentucky shot 41 percent from the field, but pulled down 20 offensive rebounds. Five Cats had five or more boards (Prince 10, Hayes 7, Hawkins 7, Fitch 6, Bogans 5). Bogans also added four assists and three steals to his impressive line.
The Gators shot 43 percent from the field and hit 10 3-pointers, but managed only 10 offensive rebounds. They got very few transition opportunities from the press, which didn't create many of UK's 15 turnovers.