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Oscar powers Cats over Gators

Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) celebrates after an NCAA college basketball game against Florida, Saturday, March 5, 2022, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/Matt Stamey)

Kentucky coach John Calipari is already in March Madness mode and coached like it in the Wildcats’ regular-season finale at Florida on Saturday.

After the Gators (19-12, 9-9 Southeastern Conference) scored five straight to open the second half and narrowed a 12-point halftime deficit to 7 at 38-31 in the McConnell Center, Calipari called timeout to not only give his team a quick breather, but to remind his squad to give the ball to Oscar Tshiebwe in the post, not just once, but over and over again.

“(I was) like, ‘throw him the ball,’” Calipari said. “We came out (after the timeout) and we just ran one thing after another (for Tshiebwe). … (March) is all about advancing, which is how I coached this game. This game for us was about seeding.”

The seventh-ranked Wildcats did just that and Tshiebwe responded by scoring Kentucky’s first 11 points of the second half that propelled Kentucky to a 71-63 win to complete a regular-season sweep of the Gators. The Wildcats (25-6, 14-4) finished in a tie with Tennessee for second place in the final Southeastern Conference standings. Kentucky will be the No. 3 seed in next week’s conference tournament and play the final of four quarterfinal-round games at 8:30 p.m. Friday in Tampa.

Tshiebwe finished with 27 points and grabbed 15 rebounds and it was his second-half boost in the post that enabled the Wildcats to hold off the Gators who likely will be on the NCAA bubble on Selection Sunday when bids are handed out for the Big Dance. Download PDF

“I was finishing (at) that moment,” Tshiebwe said. “Nobody else was helping and that’s why coach (Calipari) was like, ‘we’ve got to go to Oscar.’ … I gave it everything I could. I (fought) and never (gave) up. … When you fight until the end, you’re going to always help your team. I just do what Oscar does all of the time.”

His teammates agreed and are getting used to lofty numbers by Tshiebewe, who posted his 13th consecutive double-double and 25th of the year.

“It’s kind of becoming normal for us,” Kentucky forward Jacob Toppin said. “Last game (a win over Ole Miss), coach (Calipari) was like, ‘he got bullied,’ but I still think he still ended up with like 22 (points) and like 15 (rebounds). It’s funny how like he could still get those type of numbers up in a game where he wasn’t really as effective. It’s still crazy. He’s amazing at what he does. He’s one of a kind.”

The strategy to go to Tshiebwe wasn’t a surprise and the National Player of the Year candidate jumpstarted an offense that got most of its scoring from the upperclassmen. Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler (13 points), Kellan Grady (11) and Davion Mintz (10) combined for 61 points.

Calipari wasn’t concerned about his team’s three turnovers down the stretch and the fact that Florida pulled to within six with less than a minute remaining. Coupled by missed shots by the Gators, Kentucky made six of eight free throws, including four straight by TyTy Washinton, to fend off Florida for the second time this season.

The focus ahead of the conference tournament, Toppin said, is to improve, especially on the defensive end of the court.

“We have all established that we need to get back to play better defense and I think we did that today,” Toppin said. “We still have some little things that we need to fix but overall I think we got back to how we usually are on defense.”

The Gators had hoped a sold-out home finale and senior day would provide extra motivation against one of the league’s top teams. But not even Keyontae Johnson’s somewhat return to the court helped.

Johnson, who collapsed during a game in December 2020 and hasn’t practiced or played since, got a ceremonial start. Johnson was on the floor for the first of two opening tips and left to a standing ovation after kissing the floor.

Calipari was among the thousands clapping and even hugged Johnson as he checked out of the game. Johnson changed back into street clothes and assumed his usual spot on the bench.

“Unique, weird, special day,” Florida coach Mike White said. “Obviously, Keyontae’s situation is a unique situation.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Keith Taylor
Keith Taylor is an award-winning journalist who has covered Kentucky athletics since 1995. He is the sports editor of Kentucky Today and his work appears in 12 daily newspapers as well as various weekly and web sites throughout the state. Reach him at Keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor 21.

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