Despite quite possibly their best performance of the season, the Florida Gator men’s basketball team fell to the top ranked Kentucky Wildcats by a final score of 68-61 Saturday night in Gainesville.
In front of a sellout crowd inside the Stephen C. O’Connell Center the Gators came out on fire and looked to put on a show for the ESPN College Game Day crew opening up an 18-9 lead in the first nine minutes of the game.
The Gators (12-11, 5-5) shot 44 percent in the first half led by junior shooting guard Michael Frazier II who went into the locker room with 10 points, shooting 3-of-4 from the field. A total of seven players scored for Florida in the first half and despite foul trouble for both sophomore Chris Walker and senior Jon Horford. Sophomore point guard Kasey Hill boasted about the team playing with the right attitude.
“We are here for a reason. It’s the University of Florida, that’s what they expect. The coaches expect us to play with energy and passion. So we just had to do things consistently and we can’t keep wavering.”
The Wildcats (23-0, 10-0) also shot 44 percent in the first half but the majority of their points came from freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns. The underclassman put up 11 points in the first half, shooting 3-for-5 from the field and a perfect 5-of-5 from the charity stripe. The Wildcats would struggle however, shooting just 11 percent from beyond the arc and turning the ball over 10 times which Towns attested to the atmosphere inside the O’Dome.
“The atmosphere was just really loud and crazy. Even for us, on defense, it was very hard to communicate since it was so loud. We could not make defensive calls with everyone hearing. The crowd was really into the game.”
The Gators went into the half with a two point lead but the game would go back and forth from there. There were a total of seven lead changes in the second half and both teams shot relatively well from the field. The Gators shot a really high 54 percent from the field and for the first time in a few games; head coach Billy Donovan saw production out of a number of players.
A total of four players were in double figures on Saturday for Florida highlighted by red shirt junior Dorian Finney-Smith who totaled 16 points and five rebounds. Despite the Gator success on the night, the Wildcats were able to match. Kentucky also finished with four players in double figures on the night led by sophomore shooting guard Aaron Harrison who led all scorers with 23 points. The Wildcats shot a very respectable 50 percent from the field in the second half and hit their stride about eight minutes in. Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein came away with the play of the night around the 12 minute mark with a monstrous one-handed dunk over Gator freshman forward Devin Robinson that left a hush over the entire crowd.
The Wildcats would take the lead on a free throw that would follow and coach John Calipari’s club would not relinquish it. Unfortunately the Gators were without their hottest player for most of the second half. Frazier only played six minutes in the second half after tweaking what appeared to be an ankle and Donovan said afterwards, his benching was for the best.
“He tried to go back in there; he was hobbling around. When you give up a three on one of the Harrisons—I just said he had to come off the floor. He was trying to limp and hobble and he needed to sit. I appreciate him trying, but he wasn’t able to help us.”
There were two other statistical categories that really hurt the Gators on Saturday night and that was their three point shooting and failure to sink anything from the free throw line. Despite shooting 49 percent from the field on the night, Donovan’s club shot just 28 percent from beyond the arc. Coming in it was thought that the Gators would need to sink a lot of three’s to have any chance of victory but in reality only a few more would have sufficed.
The real problem for Florida on the night was free throws. The Gators shot just 50 percent from the line hitting only 7-of-14 while the Wildcats were an amazing 21-of-22. Down the stretch it was the line that made all the difference and Donovan noted some of the team’s key misses in the final minutes and what those meant.
“We had our opportunities. The difference in the game was the free throw line. We go 0-for-4 coming down the stretch and Jon Horford had some plays in and around the basket that we could not finish. [Kentucky] goes 21-of-22 [from the free throw line]—give them credit. We go 7-for-14, which was really the difference in the game.”
In the end, the Gators could not hit any of their big shots down the stretch and the Wildcats big men were just too much. Towns and Cauley-Stein combined for 32 points on the night and dominated the glass with 13 rebounds. The two bigs never found themselves in foul trouble, and their ability to stay on the court late made all the difference.
The Gators were simply unable to put the finishing touches on one of their best performances of the season and Donovan found very little to be happy about.
“I’m just disappointed in my team. Not from the game at all. For the people that follow us, who have covered this, it’s the first time I felt in 23 games we played to win tonight. I thought we played as a team tonight.”
Up next the Gators will look to get back on track and put an end to their losing streak as they welcome the Ole Miss Rebels on Thursday.
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