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How Kentucky pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in the John Calipari era vs. Florida

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Trailing by 18 points with 11:55 to play, Kentucky scored 32 points, held Florida to just nine points over the final 8:18 and somehow, won their final regular season game without Ashton Hagans.

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The biggest comeback in terms of deficit during the John Calipari era at Kentucky was when they trailed by 19 with 8:04 in the first half vs. Vanderbilt in 2017.

The next biggest was 18 points with 7:01 to play in the first half against Miami (Ohio) during the college debut of John Wall in 2009.

The more recent one that comes close to that was the 17-point comeback in January 2018 when Kevin Knox set the West Virginia Coliseum on fire.

The rally against Miami (Ohio) was at Rupp Arena, which led to a game-winning jumper from Wall in his first game wearing a Kentucky uniform and kickstarted one of the best and most exciting seasons in program history.

On Saturday, Kentucky trailed Florida by 18 points with a shade under 12 minutes to play on the road this time without their starting point guard and without SEC Player of the Year candidate for the final nine-ish minutes after fouling out.

In that stretch of 11:55, Kentucky outscored the Gators 32-13 and thanks to a boost from their initial SEC Player of the Year candidate this season and three role players, the Cats pulled off the most improbable of comebacks with just six scholarship players down the stretch to close their season on a high note heading into the SEC Tournament this week in Nashville.

Calipari-coached teams are driven by guard play, but on Saturday, it was Nick Richards’ team

Nick Richards missed six of his first seven shots of the game and didn’t look anywhere near the player he had become throughout much of his junior campaign.

“I know at halftime, I said, ‘Nick, you are so bad right now. If you play, they’re only gonna remember the second half and I’m coming at you,’” John Calipari said during his post-game press conference on Saturday. “We’re not going away from you. So, you can either be the player you’ve been all year or look like (you did in the first half).”

As usual, Calipari wasn’t wrong. Richards’ second half was one to remember.

After a 1-of-7 start with two rebounds and two turnovers in the opening 20 minutes, Richards put the entire city of Lexington on his back with 17 second-half points and five rebounds to carry the offensive load for Kentucky with Immanuel Quickley (12 points, two rebounds) on the bench for virtually the final half of the second half.

Richards made seven of his 11 shot attempts in the second half, including this one on the opening possession of the half. The right block was a go-to spot on the floor for Richards, whether it was out of a HORNS look like this one or coming off cross screens from Nate Sestina (nine points, six rebounds) and EJ Montgomery (four points, two rebounds, game-winning putback with 11.6 seconds left).

Even when he didn’t score, he scored. Florida had no answer for Richards’ post-ups and twice in the second half, Richards got to the line by going to his left-handed hook and drawing contact for two free throws.

As encouraging as Richards’ box score production was, he even found ways to influence the game without touching the basketball.

Tyrese Maxey made just one shot all game, but it came off of a great Kentucky possession. Before he fouled out, Immanuel Quickley got the ball on the left wing with the shot clock winding down. Richards points to the baseline and the open space on the floor where Quickley then drives. He gets up in the air, but makes a great pass to Johnny Juzang, who makes one more pass to Maxey for 3.

Before Keion Brooks Jr. and EJ Montgomery helped cap the co-greatest comeback of the Calipari era, Richards had to completely take over the game and he did. With the Cats trailing by just five with a little over four minutes to play, Richards contests Scottie Lewis off a middle cut to force a miss and then picks and pops his way into a baseline jumper (!) to trim the lead down under four points since the 13:18 mark of the first half (11-9 UF).

One of the dagger plays for Tennessee in their 17-point comeback against Kentucky just days prior to Saturday was an offensive rebound from John Fulkerson over Richards that helped put the game away for the Vols. Richards kept Kentucky in it down five with three minutes left off a Maxey drive with an offensive rebound and the putback.

After Kentucky got a turnover on defense with some stonewall defense at the rim, Richards brought the deficit to just one with the thing that got him and Kentucky going in the first place by scoring again from the right block.

The saying goes, “Big-time players make big-time plays.”

Nick Richards is a big-time player.

When Quickley fouled out, the Cats were down to just six active scholarship players and three of them were massive all day

An hour before the tip, John Calipari announced on Twitter that Ashton Hagans did not make the trip to Gainesville due to personal reasons and would not be playing on Saturday.

Immanuel Quickley was called for three offensive fouls and fouled out of the game with 9:04 to play and Kentucky trailing by 16.

But, thanks to 29 combined points from Keion Brooks Jr., Johnny Juzang and Nate Sestina, the trio helped pick up the offensive firepower in a huge way.

Hell, Calipari drew up the final offensive possession of the game for KBJ.

“The last play of the game, the biggest play of the game, I went at Keion,” Calipari said. “You look and say, ‘He’s only averaging five points. Why would you have him make the game-winning play?’ Because he was playing good! He was the one that had something going. That’s what this team is. Whoever has it going, we go to them.”

Brooks and Juzang were two of the four Cats that scored in double figures, while Sestina just missed by a point, but trailed just Richards with six rebounds, including five (!) of them on the offensive end.

Sestina has had more productive games offensively, but in terms of his effort in just playing the game, I genuinely don’t think there’s a game this season where he played as hard as he did on Saturday. He fought for everything on both ends, including here, flying in for an offensive rebound and drawing the foul on the putback.

Whether it was setting the screens to free up Richards during the second half or getting on the offensive glass, Sestina did all of the dirty work to give his team a chance throughout the day.

Sestina took advantage on one play in particular off Tyrese Maxey’s wizardry coming down the stretch of the game and Kentucky starting to feel it during the comeback. Maxey somehow gets to the rim and probably should’ve scored, but the rim had a lid on it, which opened the door for Sestina to fly in like he did at the end of the first half of the Tennessee loss for the jam.

“Nate (was) huge today,” Calipari said. “Making shots, second-chance shots, he defended ... we need those three (KBJ, Juzang and Sestina) to do something.”

From Nov. 5 to Feb. 4, Johnny Juzang played in 19 games, but played 11 minutes per game and missed 20 of his 25 attempts from long range.

Since his 13-point breakout game against Tennessee on Feb. 8, he’s not only had to play more, but he’s hit nine of his 18 3-point attempts, including two of the four he took on Saturday.

He’s still a work-in-progress staying with his man and keeping ball-handlers in front of him, but offensively, he’s producing the way he’s been asked to while playing much more than he was asked to earlier in the year.

The funny thing is, guess who kinda helped force Florida’s final turnover of the day?

“I said, ‘In the first half, you two (KBJ and Juzang) gave up 25 points,’” Calipari said. “I cannot play you unless you’re guarding. In the second half, they guarded, rebounded and did a better job, and played a big part in us winning, both of those guys.”

Brooks’ breakout performance was like the RKO maneuver from professional wrestling superstar Randy Orton most of the time; seemingly out of nowhere.

The freshman scored 10 points for the first time since Jan. 18 at Arkansas, grabbed three rebounds, recorded two steals and hit both of his 3-point attempts. (Note: he had made just three all season coming into Saturday and hadn’t taken one from 3 since Jan. 18 at Vanderbilt.)

Crunch time is where Brooks stood out the most, scoring two of his four makes on the day and probably would’ve a kept a perfect 5-for-5 shooting day if the rim was a bit friendlier on the final possession for Kentucky.

Speaking of that final possession where EJ Montgomery emerged from a phone booth with a red cape and an S on his chest, Calipari said the final play was for Brooks.

After some good defense from Richards, Brooks gave Lewis no air space after bobbling the ball with the shot clock almost at zero to force the violation.

Kentucky called a timeout and drew up a HORNS set designed for KBJ to give the lead. Brooks comes from the weak side of the floor on an Iverson cut and sits on the high post. Maxey doesn’t deliver the pass and works the ball back around the perimeter with Brooks fighting for position to the left block. The ball works its way to Juzang on the left wing and he delivered an absolute perfect pass to where only KBJ could catch it drifting to the baseline. Brooks gathers himself for a split-second and drives to the rim.

He said he thought he got fouled (which he might have been right) afterwards, but Florida got caught watching the ball and trying to put a body on Richards (for good reason), completely forgetting Montgomery and allowing him to give the Cats their first lead of the game.

Yeah, Kentucky led for 11.6 seconds in the game ... and won.

Some week for the Cats, eh?

They give up a 17-point lead in their final home game of the year against Tennessee and then come back from 18 down on the road without their national defensive player of the year candidate and one of their conference player of the year candidates for nine-plus minutes.

As bad as Tuesday’s collapse was, Saturday’s comeback might have set the stage for a magical postseason run for Kentucky.