The Kentucky Wildcats and Florida Gators met in the SEC Tournament final yesterday. It was a hard fought but relatively poorly played game by both basketball teams that came down to the last possession. In that last possession, Kentucky ran what looked like the winning play, but James Young slipped, fell, and time expired in the ensuing scrum for the ball before Kentucky could get a shot off to win the game.
Congratulations to Florida, they played just well enough to win and that is absolutely all you can say about that. Statistically, Florida almost gave the game away at the free throw line, normally a Kentucky trademark, but they held a fairly large lead throughout most of the game, and as is normally the case in such situations, a rousing comeback fell just short.
Kentucky played a poor game offensively, especially compared to the two games just prior to this one. The Wildcats did defend well, however, perhaps better than they have all year. I wish they could bottle that up and take it with them to the NCAA Tournament, but alas.
Once again, Kentucky struggled mightily to make shots around the rim. Kentucky's big guys were 5-16 on the day.
Florida did a good job defensively, and Kentucky had a lot of trouble getting good looks. Kentucky had been averaging 1.20+ points per possession in the tournament, and yesterday it was 0.97
Defensively, Kentucky was pretty good. The Gators were making a lot of shots early in the game both due to Kentucky breakdowns and just outright heat. Florida was particularly hot from three. But then in the second half, the Wildcat got really stingy and played with much more intensity.
It seems we are destined to go through this whole season without seeing a complete game from the Wildcats, unless it comes in the tournament.
The fight that Kentucky showed, and has showed all year long, is impressive. They do a lot of things to bemoan, but they never give up.
Free throw shooting almost won this game for the Wildcats. Who'da thunk it? 81% is one of Kentucky's best shooting performances all year from the line.
I warned you about 3-point shots, and it proved prophetic. Kentucky made but three, and took too few at 11. Some of that was Gator defense, but most of it was lack of offensive execution by Kentucky — too many mad rushes to the rim again.
The Wildcats failed because they did only one of the three things they needed to do well. Too many turnovers and poor rebounding were the reason Kentucky lost, all other things remaining equal.
Overall, this is a tournament Julius Randle would like to forget. He couldn't throw it in the ocean from a rowboat in the middle of the Pacific ocean. He couldn't rebound this game, either, collecting only seven.
Andrew Harrison reverted. He struggled to keep the ball moving, held the ball too long, and missed open players about five times while he was rushing the rim. He did make all eight of his free throws, which were big, but three turnovers against only two assists hurt the team.
Aaron Harrison almost played well, but he lost Michael Frazier II way too many times. He made some big shots down the stretch, but also took some bad ones.
James Young seemed to struggle all game. He just never had the energy to move well without the ball, he didn't take good advantage of his size, and he was once again in foul trouble. He made some plays at the end, though.
Dakari Johnson played hard, but he couldn't make the ball go in and missed two outright layups, one unchallenged. I liked his effort, but Patric Young just pushed him around.
Willie Cauley-Stein was best player on the floor. he played well, getting a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, an assist, five blocks, and two steals for the cherry on top. What a line. If any of the other starters has a good game, we win this.
Alex Poythress broke out of his slump and had a good game. He needed to get more than two rebounds, but I liked what he did out there.
Tying it all up
When Willie Cauley-Stein plays like this, the Wildcats are normally unbeatable. Unfortunately, Randle, Young, and the Harrison twins all had weak or so-so games, and UK needs more from them than they brought. I think three games in three days really worked on both teams, because at the end, everybody on the floor looked a little bit tired. They were still playing hard, but fatigue shows up in missed defensive assignments, lost rebounds, and blown layups. We saw a lot of that yesterday from both combatants.
Overall, this game was a benefit to Kentucky. They know they should have won this game, and they know that if they can compete like this with the Gators, they can beat anyone on a neutral floor. It was a tough loss to take, but if there is such a thing as a good loss, this was one. The Wildcats took what looks to be a big step up in the SEC Tournament, and if they really have found another gear, the NCAA Tournament suddenly looks a lot less daunting.
Having said that, this was not a good statistical game for Kentucky, particularly offensively. Julius Randle was a near-no-show, and we haven't seen that all season. We can't afford to see it again, either. Andrew Harrison has got to remember the sharp passing that made Kentucky so efficient, and James Young and Alex Poythress have to move without the ball.
Finally, I loved the body language and the way the team was yesterday as a group. I saw a lot of touching, a lot of talking, and a lot of the things you want to see in a basketball team when they are heading into tournament play. Yes, they didn't play well, but the other little things will serve to bond them and prepare them for what is to come. There are many negatives about this game, but quite a few positives as well.