Written by Vinny Hardy
The Kentucky Wildcats (25-6, 15-3 SEC) rolled into Gainesville to face the Florida Gators (19-12, 11-7, SEC) in the season finale with lots of noise swirling around them. They had come from ahead Tuesday night against Tennessee in the home finale at Rupp Arena, allowing a 17-point lead to slip away en route to a 81-73 setback.
On top of that was the Ashton Hagans situation. There was the difference of opinion with Nick Richards, the “heat of the moment” moments between himself and Coach Cal where at one point he didn’t want to enter the game and another point where he wasn’t in favor of being subbed out of the game.
The end result? Hagans didn’t make the trip for personal reasons.
For those thinking that Ashton had checked out and wasn’t concerned about how the rest of this season played out, there was this.
As for the game, Florida is a tough place to play even when a team is at full strength. So it wasn’t really all that surprising to see things start rocky for the Cats. A Florida layup, a Kentucky turnover, another Florida layup, a Kentucky missed layup and a Florida three had the Cats in a quick 7-0 hole at the 18:20 mark.
Kentucky tried to weather the storm but there were a lot of those old “missed one footers” as they found themselves down 40-30 at the half.
Florida would nearly double their lead in second half, as their lead swelled to 18 in the first eight minutes of play.
To make things even more challenging than they already were, Immanuel Quickley picked up his fifth foul with 9:04 left to play. They had started the afternoon with seven dudes and now were forced to finish it with only six. And finish they did. Nick Richards went to work. It was a total team effort as he stated in the post game press conference, but he set the tone and erased a rough first half with a strong second half. He hit the boards, he made the shots in the paint that he had been missing, he raised up and nailed a baseline jumper in Keyontae Johnson’s eye.
Keion Brooks was the first option down the stretch. Johnny Juzang shot 66% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc in his efficient 33 minutes of play. Nate Sestina has two-game put back dunk streak, in addition to the nine points and six rebounds he contributed. The thin much-maligned bench chipped in 29 points and 11 rebounds in a game where in a game where they were being relied on more than they have been all year long.
E.J. Montgomery only had two points prior to his game winning tip in. It has to rank right up there with Cedric Jenkins tip in to beat Louisville in 1987 and Jeff Brassow’s famous tap in to knock off Arizona in Maui in 1993. Montgomery had played 24 minutes. Cal has been talking E.J. and conditioning all season long. Lately he mentioned how he was close to breaking through. Yes, he’s 6’10” and has a long stride but he was at the three-point line when Brooks shot the ball. It is more than safe to say that he wouldn’t have made that play in December.
That was a big statement about the mettle of this team. With all that’s been happening since the loss to Tennessee, they focused and got ready for Florida, got punched dead in the mouth and still bounced back to keep one loss from becoming two.
They definitely missed Hagans, but it was good to see that he wasn’t sulking while he was absent from the team. If he’s “inspired” and ready when he returns it will help the Cats for sure.