When ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said that, in the past, observers would call games like the one that happened on Saturday night between the Florida Gators and Kentucky Wildcats a “rock fight,” he was wrong.
He was understating it.
But the way Florida won that game — by a 66-64 count, after bricking a free throw, after allowing the third and fourth threes of Kentucky’s evening in the 40th minute of play — proves these Gators can get ugly and get dubs.
Florida’s own shooting from deep, on a 6-for-30 night, was worse than Kentucky’s. Egor Koulechov took eight shots and made none. KeVaughn Allen (11 points), Chris Chiozza (13 points), Jalen Hudson (17 points, leading all scorers), and Keith Stone (14 points) lead all scorers) made it to double digits in points for the Gators — but they required a combined 49 shots to muster 55 points. The Gators were just 16-for-25 from the line, and Stone missed the front end of a one-and-one with under 30 seconds left, giving Kentucky the ball back with a chance to tie or take the lead after the aforementioned threes shaved a six-point lead to two.
But Kentucky’s final two shots were rejected by Koulechov — cleanly — and Hudson — arguably less so — and the Wildcats’ final inbounds pass was deflected into Chiozza’s hands, ending the fight.
And while both fighters were more than bruised after the final bell rang, Florida stood in the ring with its hands raised.
The win is Florida’s first at Rupp Arena since 2014, when a group of Gators with composure, resilience, and leadership in spades ended an eight-year drought on the road in Lexington with a triumph that helped propel it to the Final Four.
This group of Gators is only ending a three-year drought — but the win does give Chiozza, a four-year senior, his first win in the blue-drenched cauldron, something he was understandably beaming about after the finish.
Chiozza, who spent much of the second half getting treatment for what appeared to be a lower leg injury, was the night’s finest player. And this was him at his best, despite the injury: He darted around and soared between Kentucky players, adding eight assists and six rebounds to his scoring output, playing fine defense as ever, and arcing a rainbow three over a Kentucky defender that bounced in off iron with 3:31 to play to erase what would be Kentucky’s last lead of the game.
But Kevarrius Hayes was excellent for stretches in doing yeoman’s work at both ends, and it would be his subsequent bucket that gave the Gators the lead for good. Allen, who struggled with his shot after a 28-point outburst in a midweek win over Arkansas, calmly sank two free throws in the waning minutes. So did Hudson, whose efforts at the line have been uneven. And Koulechov coming up with a key block on a night that could scarcely have been worse for him on the offensive end — as he chucked up ill-advised threes and hurled fallaway twos at the iron — was reminiscent of Canyon Barry making his own tremendous defensive play to help keep Florida alive in the Sweet Sixteen last spring.
This Florida team does not have a single go-to player. It does not, considering the streakiness of all of its shooters, even have a reliable scorer. Its best player is a point guard very generously listed at 6’0”. Its second-best big man is a small forward; more than half of what should be its frontcourt rotation is currently unavailable due to injuries and maladies. It cannot play individual basketball and hope for collective success. It can look very ugly — as it did for long stretches of this evening — if its shots do not fall.
It blew a big lead to Duke, got blown out by Florida State, lost to Loyola of Chicago, couldn’t hold off Clemson, and couldn’t get a road win at Ole Miss.
And it just beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena, scoring the first win by an SEC team in Lexington since Arkansas got one — just weeks after Florida did — in 2014.
In the intervening years, the only teams to win in Rupp, other than Kentucky? Kansas and UCLA, programs with blood as blue as it gets.
Florida is still a plucky, rising program, at least relative to those titans.
But I wouldn’t trade this team for the world.