The Florida Gators (24-6) fell at the hands of the Kentucky Wildcats (21-10) on Saturday in a familiar fashion, 61-57.
The Gators weathered an early storm by the young Wildcats who came storming out of the gates to take an 11-2 lead on senior day in Lexington. Florida responded with a run of their own, to tighten up the game and the two teams went back and forth the rest of the half, going to the intermission tied at 31.
With Florida trailing by 7-points and 13:42 remaining, another Kentucky big man went down, this time by his own doing. Willie Cauley-Stein earned his 4th foul, a turning point in the game. Much like what happened after Nerlens Noel went down in the game in Gainesville, Florida attacked inside and found success exploiting Kentucky in a place in which they were vulnerable.
For the next 6:12 of the game Florida ripped off an 18-5 run, and held a 7-point lead heading into the home stretch. Florida worked the ball into the low post through entry passes as well as driving the lane. Even when Cauley-Stein returned, Florida made an effort to bait him into his 5th personal foul, to no avail, but the switch in strategy away from relying on the three was important. The Gators only took 14 three pointers, well under their season average of 22 threes attempted per game.
Although Florida experienced success for a stretch in the second half, it was during the last 7:36 that disaster struck for them.
From the 7:36 mark until the end of the game Florida did not score a single point, from that juncture onwards the Gators were unable to repel a fierce 11-0 run by the Wildcats to close out the game. The repeated pattern of mental paralysis on the road in close games has plagued Florida the entire year — five of the Gators’ six losses have come by six points or less. While there is a significant degree of difficulty to beating a desperate team in front of their raucous home crowd the loss raises a concern about Florida moving forward.
When the going gets tough, Florida doesn’t have a dominant go-to player in the clutch. Florida is great across the board but during a cold stretch of 7:36 nobody was able to take the game into their own hands.
Next week Florida plays in the SEC tournament. As the number one seed, they have a bye all the way until the quarterfinals. For the Gators this neutral court test will be much-needed. They’ll face desperate teams trying to play their way into the NCAA tournament via automatic bid earned by winning the conference tournament. Florida will more than likely be in a close game next weekend, and that will be the most important test, because the neutral environment will be most reminiscent of an NCAA tournament game.
Should things get tight next weekend we will be able to see how Florida can navigate the late stages of a close game without the added pressure of 23,000 fans wearing the opposing team’s blue as on Saturday. If they can do it in the setting of a conference tournament it will bode well for the big dance.