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Kentucky tops Florida: 5 takeaways & postgame chatter

Kentucky caps off their regular season with a grind-it-out win over Florida.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Heading into Saturday’s games featuring regular season finales of the Southeastern Conference, the Kentucky Wildcats looked to be locked in to the 3 seed for next week’s SEC Tournament.

However, a Tennessee loss at Auburn earlier in the day brought along new fortunes. With Tennessee’s loss, Kentucky would be able to improve to a 2 seed with a victory over the Florida Gators at Rupp Arena.

However, that task wouldn’t come easy. While Kentucky consistently led early on in the first half, Florida rallied back to take a 31-30 halftime lead. In fact, Ashton Hagans and his 11 points solely kept the Wildcats in contention.

In their fourth-straight game trailing at the half, Kentucky was fueled by an energetic Rupp Arena crowd to claim a 66-57 victory in their final game of the season.

Wildcats Ride Crowd to Victory

Considering Saturday was not only senior day for long-time Wildcat Jonny David and graduate transfer Reid Travis, but also the final home game several Kentucky Wildcats will likely play, Rupp Arena’s crowd was rather lackluster in the first half. As a result, Kentucky came out without much energy and a supreme lack of engagement.

However, Rupp Arena host Ravi Moss took the mic during halftime and let Big Blue Nation know what needed to happen in the second half.

Of course, Kentucky fans followed the former player’s notion and picked their team up to start the second period and fuel one final home win this season.

Hagans Finds His Groove

To say Ashton Hagans has struggled with consistency over the last month would be an understatement. The freshman point guard jumped onto the scene in December, with his coming out party a booming performance against North Carolina in the CBS Sports Champions Classic.

With Saturday’s game against the Gators coincidentally airing on CBS, Hagans had arguably his best half as a Wildcat by scoring 11 points on four shots in 18 minutes in the opening period.

In the second half, Hagans’ scoring took a back seat to get the rest of his team involved. Time and time again, the freshman point guard was making the correct decision and the smart pass to find teammates for high-percentage baskets.

Finishing with 14 points, three rebounds and two assists, Hagans turned in one of his best performances in quite some time.

Washington Leads The Comeback

The first half wasn’t kind to PJ Washington, as the sophomore forward had several shots bounce off the rim and scored just four points for the Wildcats.

However, a few rim-outs wouldn’t shake the veterans’ confidence.

With his team trailing, Washington came out on a mission to start the second half. He scored 11 second-half points to lead the comeback victory, finishing the game with 15 points and nine rebounds.

Washington turns in yet another sound performance, further elevating why his return to college has benefited not just his draft stock but the success of this program.

First-Half Woes Need Attention

Saturday was the fourth time in four games that Kentucky has trailed at halftime. Kentucky had multiple chances to extend their lead into double digits, but never capitalized. Simply becoming more consistent would be a quantifying fix to the Wildcats’ issue, though it’s easier said than done.

Heading into the SEC Tournament, though, it’s now or never for head coach John Calipari and his team. The competition of this year’s postseason will be as great as ever, which will require the Wildcats’ to be as efficient as possible over the course of each 40-minute outing they play.

Calipari Coaches a Gem

After the season’s opener resulting in a devastating blowout loss to the Duke Blue Devils, many followers of the Big Blue Nation were unsure how the 2018-2019 season would unfold. While Kentucky rattled off several wins early on in the year, a late loss to Seton Hall would steadily bring the Wildcats’ back down to Earth once again.

The transfer of sophomore point guard Quade Green was assumed to be a significant blow, but ultimately brought the best of Ashton Hagans. Kentucky took their schedule by the horns and wrestled off several impressive wins which included besting North Carolina, Louisville, Auburn and Tennessee.

Leading Kentucky during their dominate stretch and into the nation’s top-4 rankings was sophomore forward PJ Washington, a player who had been rather inconsistent to start the year but certainly found his mojo during SEC play.

Losing starting center Reid Travis to a sprained knee would put a dent in the Wildcats’ front court depth, specifically when the team traveled to Knoxville, but would ultimately spell more minutes for reserve big men EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards.

Now, Kentucky (26-5) will head into the SEC Tournament as the 2 seed with the goal of bringing their fifth-consecutive title back to Lexington.