By Keith Taylor
Kentucky proved a point Saturday: Never count out the Wildcats when their backs are against the wall.
Already a top seed for the upcoming Southeastern Conference Tournament, sixth-ranked Kentucky took its game at Florida seriously. It showed in the second half, especially when the odds were stacked against John Calipari’s squad after leading scorer Immanuel Quickley fouled out with nine minutes remaining.
Playing without point guard Ashton Hagans, who didn’t make the trip to sort out some “personal issues,” things didn’t start out well for Kentucky, but Tyrese Maxey did just enough to fill the void. Most teams would have folded and looked ahead to the conference tournament but the Wildcats stuck together through adversity and found a way to win.
That’s what good teams do. One man down, next man steps up. Or in Kentucky’s case, it was the next three – Johnny Juzang, Keion Brooks and Nate Sestina. That trio combined for 29 points including season-highs of 10 points each for Juzang and Brooks.
The comeback at Florida is a good sign for the Wildcats moving forward. Although a loss to Tennessee earlier this week was a crushing defeat, the rally at Florida quickly erased memories of a second-half meltdown against the Volunteers and renewed hope for postseason success with Selection Sunday a week away.
In most NCAA Tournament bracket predictions, Kentucky is trending upward and in contention for a No. 2 seed in either the Midwest or East Region. If not for the Tennessee letdown, the Wildcats would be in the conversation for a No. 1 seed. But thanks to a break-even week to end the regular season, the Wildcats (25-6) appear to be a solid two and a safe No. 3 seed depending on how the conference tournaments play out this week.
Kentucky boosted its tournament resume by beating the Gators to complete a regular-season sweep, but got some help from other Top 10 teams who lost Saturday. No. 8 Seton Hall lost to Creighton, while No 4 Baylor was upset by West Virginia and No. 5 San Diego State suffered a three-point loss to Utah State.
Facing adversity from the opening tip, the entire team benefitted from the successful comeback in Gainesville, especially backups Brooks, Sestina and Juzang.
All three players gained more confidence just in time or the postseason and Brooks was the go-to player on a late possession that won the game for the Wildcats. Although Brooks barely missed the shot underneath the basket, it showed Calipari had no problem going with the hot hand with the game on the line. The play eventually paid off in the form of a putback tip-in by EJ Montgomery that capped an improbable comeback.
Juzang is starting to hit his stride and Sestina continues to provide valuable minutes off the bench. Juzang, along with Brooks, hit timely 3-point shots against the Gators. Nick Richards reverted and then regained his form in the second half and took a challenge from the coaching staff to heart.
Calipari had no explanation for the comeback, but his team’s actions spoke louder than words.
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Tennessee-Alabama winner, 1 p.m., Friday, Nashville. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.