BY Bill Crockett
(MANCHESTER, Ky.) — Following a monumental collapse against Tennessee earlier in the week, John Calipari’s sixth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats somehow flipped the script during an epic 71-70 come-from-behind win over Florida. Despite Ashton Hagans’ ill-timed personal sabbatical, Nick Richards and the ‘Cats refused to lose and overcame an 18-point second-half deficit in the midst of an improbable “Gainesville Miracle” which shocked Gator Nation.
Discovering team unity in the face of adversity on the road doesn’t usually end well for opposing teams—much less one trailing by 18-points. Taking advantage of UK’s porous defense on the perimeter and in the paint, Florida led 40-30 at the half. Coach Calipari imparted a simple message afterward. “Should we go to the bus and surrender, or do you guys want to fight,” Calipari questioned. “That’s the only two options.”
Already undermanned because of Hagans’ absence, Immanuel Quickley drew his fourth personal with fourteen minutes left. Making matters even more pressing, he committed his fifth foul at the 9-minute mark. Surprisingly, Calipari imparted a uniquely different perspective. “Biggest play of the game that helped us win was Immanuel fouling out,” Calipari said. “He comes out and all of a sudden we’re playing a bunch of young guys and we played pretty good.”
What Kentucky (25-6, 15-3 SEC) accomplished in Gainesville just doesn’t happen, especially in the vastly improved Southeastern Conference. Taking into account Hagans’ mini-break for personal reasons along with Quickley fouling out, how did the ‘Cats rally from a double-digit deficit without two of their best players? “Doesn’t really matter how much we’re down by,” Nick Richards explained. “We’re going to fight, we’re going to find a way to win.”
Mental lapses on rotations plagued the Wildcats’ defensive effort throughout much of the first-half. Nick Richards, who led the ‘Cats with 19-points and 7 rebounds, acknowledged that UK made late game adjustments and ran different defensive schemes. “We came up with a whole different game plan in the second-half,” Richards advised. “Instead of icing the ball screen, we were just going to twirl (switch) everything.”
Around the 11-minute mark, the ‘Cats flipped the switch and played with a sense of urgency. Keion Brooks, who entered the contest with only three makes from deep this season, knocked down a couple of crucial threes and finished with 10-points. Calipari showed great confidence in Brooks during the final seconds. “The last play of the game, biggest play of the game, I went at Keion,” Calipari pointed out. “That’s what this team is: Whoever has it going, we go to them.”
Brooks never doubted whether or not his team could mount a comeback. Asked about the conversation when down by 18-points, Brooks noted, “Really, we just came together and said, ‘We’ve got twelve minutes. Let’s go out and fight and compete.’ We knew we had enough time to come back.” EJ Montgomery’s game-winning tip-in with 11 seconds left gave the ‘Cats their first lead of the game. UK dominated second-chance points 21-6 and closed on a 30-11 run.
As expected, Calipari fielded a number of questions about Ashton Hagans and whether or not he would return for the SEC Tournament. “I would fully expect him to be, but I haven’t talked to him,” Calipari postulated. “I’ll probably talk to him sometime Monday.” Apparently, Hagans specified that he needed to step away from the team. Calipari seemingly hedged his bet, however, later telling members of the media, “We’re going to go with whoever we have.”
Freshman Johnny Juzang scored 10-points in a career-high 33 minutes, but after the miraculous win, focus remained on Hagans’ unclear playing status going forward. With Selection Sunday only a week away, the ‘Cats’ “Team Tension” moniker doesn’t bode well for UK’s chances at a deep NCAA Tournament run. Friction between teammates and coaches happens more than typical fans realize. Let’s hope Calipari can get everyone back on the same page before it’s too late.