There hadn’t been a bigger game for the Florida Gators this season – hell, in the last four seasons. The Big Blue Nation, thousands of fans strong, wildly cheered on its team with all the enthusiasm you would expect from the storied Kentucky program in the pinnacle of college basketball, Rupp Arena. The Gator Nation (which is everywhere, including Midtown Atlanta) collectively held its breath as the Gators sought a win in Lexington for the first time since 2007 – coincidentally, the Gators’ last national championship season.
This may be a relatively young clash in terms of the number of competitive years, but both fan bases have the dates circled on their calendars long before the sneakers meet the hardwood. Make no mistake, folks: this is a true (orange and) blue rivalry – and a fierce one at that. For that reason, the pall of silence that fell over Rupp Arena after Florida’s 69-59 victory was even sweeter, even more deafening, and even more well-deserved by this incredible group of seniors.
The first half though, as it has been on the road all season, was atrocious. The Gators were an abysmal 1-for-9 behind the arc and, even for this squad, a glacial 33% from the field – compared to 55% shooting from Kentucky.
I am by no means a conspiracy theorist about SEC officiating (looking at YOU, LSU fans…), but when Dick Vitale says, “Oh boy, did Kentucky get lucky again there,” it’s comforting to know I’m not questioning multiple calls in vain. Florida could not challenge, sneeze, or be within five feet of Kentucky players in the post without the referees calling a foul. And with the smothering defense the Gators have become known for, it seemed like it was asking too much for them. Add to it, the fact that Florida was an astonishingly bad 6-for-26 from the field, and it appeared that the Gators had dug too deep a hole from which to claw back in the second half – even if they were only down by three points.
Yet Florida’s second-half heroics continued. For me, the turning point came when John Calipari was slapped with a technical foul with 8:14 remaining. It sparked an inspired mode of Gator play that did not stop until the buzzer sounded. From that point forward, they outscored Kentucky, 16-6, to end the game.
In what I thought was an incredible (and risky) shift of the game plan by Coach Billy Donovan, especially considering what I’ve mentioned before, they did this mostly from the free throw line. The Gators continually forced Kentucky to foul with either hard drives (particularly by Will Yuegette and Casey Prather), or by beating the Wildcats at their own game on the offensive glass. Kentucky came in ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive rebounding, yet the Gators won that statistic 10-to-9 and shot 60% in the second half after their miserable first-half performance.
With the win, Florida tied a school record of 17 consecutive victories, one they now share with that famed 2006-07 NCAA title team. They also added to their cushion, sitting at an impressive three games over Kentucky in the overall SEC standings.
It was sloppy to start and it was strong to finish, but it was cohesive – which is more than the luck Syracuse, Duke, and yes, even Kentucky are relying upon. Composure, consistency, and coolness under pressure are the hallmarks for this Gator team. A typically raucous Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville didn’t stop them; a typically hostile Thompson-Bolling Arena in Knoxville didn’t trap them; and a typically intimidating Rupp Arena in Lexington didn’t defeat them.
Why? Because this is a team with experience.
They play together, they work together, and they win together. They keep their emotions in check, make the necessary changes when required, and wear down whomever they are playing defensively. One thing is for sure: this Gator basketball team has put the SEC and the country on notice. The pride for the Florida Gators is back in Gainesville and in the Gator Nation – and it is here to stay.
As one of my favorite musical groups, Fleetwood Mac, once sang:,”…Been down one time (at Wisconsin) / Been down two times (at Connecticut)/ I’m never going back again.” If these Gators continue this roll and don’t have a letdown performance after that emotional win in Lexington, the nets from Cowboys Stadium just might be coming back to Gainesville – right where they belong.