The story of the Florida Gators men’s basketball program becoming a nationally significant program is more than two decades long at this point, dating back to Vernon Maxwell or the first Final Four or Billy Donovan — the beginning of the rise can be put in any of many places.
It has been a wonderful journey, with peaks and valleys and championships and crap-outs. But that rise has very rarely featured triumphs over the Kentucky Wildcats — the monument to hardwood greatness the Gators have had to summit time and again — like the one that Florida scored on Saturday night.
The final score was Florida 88, Kentucky 66. The game was won about 10 minutes before that score was ever displayed in the shined-up jewel that is the renovated O’Connell Center.
It was won by every Gator who saw the floor, bar none. Kasey Hill led the way, tying his career high with 21 points that came on his finest night of jump-shooting — and perhaps play, period — as a Gator, along with five rebounds, and five assists, and a steal, and a block. But Devin Robinson had 16 points on seven shots. Chris Chiozza followed up an improbable triple-double with a near-miss of an even more improbable double-double — he had just two points, but 10 assists and nine rebounds. KeVaughn Allen had 12 points, three on a banked-in triple that helped stake Florida to a 5-0 lead early on, and prove these Gators could throw the first punch. Eric Hester made the 11th three of his young career on the 19th attempt of his young career.
Schuyler Rimmer dunked.
All 10 Gators who played scored.
It was won emphatically. The 22-point margin of victory was the largest for Florida in the history of its series with Kentucky, one that dates to 1927, but has only recently risen to the level of rivalry — and Florida could have won by more, had Mike White kept his foot on the pedal or his best players in the game, or wanted to win a fourth straight game by 30 points. The Gators led by no fewer than 18 points for the last eight minutes of play. By then, Kentucky looked listless, and Florida looked fearsome, sprinting end to end and snaring every loose ball and breaking presses and making threes.
The Gators had 52 rebounds, 15 on the offensive end — Kentucky had 30, and six. Florida committed 17 turnovers and 23 fouls — and won by 22.
It was won with resilience. Kentucky made its runs at these Gators: The Wildcats whittled a 13-point lead in the first half to eight points by halftime, compressed the advantage to just four points early in the second half, and got to within 10 after a pair of fouls that put Florida in the double bonus midway through the second half. But Florida scored first after halftime, composed a 10-3 run after leading 37-33, and thundered beyond striking range of even John Calipari’s thoroughbreds with a 13-0 run after that close to double digits.
But Florida led for 39:37 of the 40:00 on the game clock. Kentucky led for 0:00.
It was won over an excellent team, too. Kentucky is 1-3 in its last four games, but is stocked to the gills with talent, and entered Saturday as the betting favorite to win this year’s national title. The Wildcats were No. 4 in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency-based ratings at tipoff, and won’t fall out of the top 10 even after the loss. Malik Monk (11 points on 14 shots) and De’Aaron Fox (19 points) will be NBA players, and soon, as will some of the other Kentucky players that Florida did not permit to score in double figures.
And yet, when it was done, there was no doubt that Florida was the best team on the floor on this Saturday night.
When the sun comes up, what Florida gained beyond the O’Dome — entrance to the conversation about this year’s title contenders, a perch that should allow the Gators to gun for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, better position than Kentucky now has in the race to win the SEC, and overdue respect for the work this team and its coach have done to go from good to great — will matter more.
When anyone who was there tonight talks about this night — and many might, even one, two, or five decades from now — none of that will matter.
A win seared in memory for eternity will.