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Florida Gators (11) 57, Kentucky Wildcats 61: Postmortem

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Kentucky rescues their NCAA Tournament hopes, at least for the moment, with a huge win over the Florida Gators on Senior Day in Rupp Arena.

Smiling Archie.  Smiling Big Blue Nation
Smiling Archie. Smiling Big Blue Nation

One thing you can always say about big games on Senior Day is that the home-standing underdog always has a better chance than it normally would. There is a lot of emotion a lot of fear, and a lot of adrenaline that can help as well as hurt.

This afternoon, the Wildcats did what they had to do to keep any hope of an NCAA Tournament bid alive – they won the game that most of us figured they wouldn’t win, and why should we? Kentucky has struggled to defeat inferior opponents all year long, and the Florida Gators were manifestly not an inferior team – they are one of the best teams in the country, and deserving of their high ranking.

As far as Florida is concerned, they did not play well, overall. Yes, Kentucky had something to do with that, but sometimes, especially late in the game, the Gators just seemed to blow off one toe after another with turnovers, blown layups, and shaky shots. You can’t say Kentucky beat Florida at their best today, but the only thing that really matters is the final score.

I think everyone loved the effort from the Wildcats today, and although I would like to think that this represents some kind of turning point, the days of self-delusion about this basketball team have long since passed. Kentucky still has most of the same problems they had coming in, including Kyle Wiltjer firmly mired in a sophomore slump. What the Wildcats did not do today is beat themselves with turnovers and allowing their opponent to dominate them on the backboard.

Rather than running down the stats today, I’m just going to link them and let you refer to them as required by the narrative. Here are some player observations:

  • The game ball goes to Julius Mays for three reasons: Senior Day, timely threes and the game-winning free throws. Others deserve mention, and they will be, but Uncle Julius came up big today, did a good job of helping lead the team and keep them calm, and did a good defensive job.

  • Archie Goodwin deserves an honorable mention. He shot a typically poor percentage, but he wasn’t a turnover machine and drew a lot of fouls. If he were only a reliable free throw shooter, he would have won the game ball going away. But alas. Note that Goodwin had a terrific defensive game including a spectacular four steals.

  • Willie Cauley-Stein also gets an honorable mention. He did a lot of things that didn’t show up on the stat sheet. He intimidated the Florida big men, and that really helped a lot. That intimidation was largely due to 4 blocked shots, most on Florida big man Patric Young. WCS also rebounded well, better than he has in a while. He also deserves great credit for playing 10 minutes with 4 fouls, even drawing a charge.

  • Alex Poythress’ 9 points might not impress you, but 12 rebounds should. Poythress was much better rebounding the ball this game, and even though he didn’t score a lot, he worked very hard. It was a quality game from a player who really needed one.

  • Ryan Harrow is a completely different player in Rupp Arena than on the road. He played with confidence and skill, and although he didn’t have a fantastic game, he took good care of the basketball, turning it over only once. He did a lot of good things out there, and as we have seen, the Wildcats are much tougher when Harrow plays well, and he played well enough I considered him for the game ball, also.

  • Kyle Wiltjer is mired in a really bad slump, and has been in and out of it for the entire second half of the SEC season. He got some good looks today, but missed badly. He is struggling with confidence on offense, and his release is a little off right now. I think he is trying to change his game to be a quicker shooter, but whenever you make that kind of change, it comes at a price. It’s like changing a golf swing.

  • John Hood came in and gave some quality minutes in the first half when Kentucky was in foul trouble. Hood is looking more and more confident every game, getting more physical, and if he can keep improving, who knows?

  • Jarrod Polson did exactly what he always does – gave energy, made smart decisions and clever cuts, and helped the team. This kid is a real asset to us in his limited way, and I can’t really say enough about how comfortable I am seeing him come into the game these days.

This was a great victory for UK this year, and I think the Big Blue Nation needed this win as much as the team did. Defending the honor of your seniors as they bid farewell to the home crowd is one of the really great things about college sports.

Rupp Arena was really amazing this game – alive, rocking and they stood when Calipari asked them to, the last 8 minutes of the game. During that time, the Gators would come up empty on their last 11 shots on goal. From 7:36 on, the Gators would possess the ball 14 times and not score on a single one of them. Some of that was due to Wildcats defense, and some due to 4 Gator turnovers. Let’s give the Big Blue patrons in attendance some credit as well.

So what does this mean for Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament hopes? Well, it gives them… hope! This win should be enough to get them there if they don’t immediately drop the first SEC Tournament game. If they win through to the final, I’d say their ticket is punched. Anything less, and it’s a roll of the dice that could go either way. Make no mistake, though – even if everything goes our way and the NCAA snubs the ’Cats, you can’t say that this team didn’t earn their NIT berth if it comes to that.

But right now, things are considerably brighter for Kentucky, and the Big Blue Nation. No, Kentucky isn’t going to win it all this year, but just getting into the NCAA Tournament mix would be an achievement of sorts, given how the Wildcats have played and considering the loss of Nerlens Noel, a player of not inconsiderable skill.

So let’s party, Big Blue Nation! This was a great win against a great team, and we defended the honor of Twany Beckham and Julius Mays. Life is sweet today, and we’ll worry about the NCAA Tournament tomorrow.

Go, ’Cats!