For a game in which their lead swelled to 23 points and their dominance over Kentucky was almost absolute, the Florida Gators have reason to be less than fully pleased with what they got on Saturday, on Senior Day: An 80-67 win over the Wildcats, the largest over Kentucky all year.
And while that potential dissatisfaction is par for the course for these Gators, so often a vexing enigma, it is also perfect motivation for them as they transition to postseason play.
This game was a tight one for a while in the first half, as Florida failed to keep Kentucky off the boards and threes fell for the visitors. It was 14-14, even as it gets, after Quade Green hit a three off a ragged possession with 13:13 to play in the first period.
Florida would surge out to 20-14 and 28-17 and 45-28 leads, though, fueled by Jalen Hudson’s 17 points in the first half and a flurry late that followed Chris Chiozza claiming the school record for assists and Kentucky’s Jarred Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington heading to the bench with foul trouble. And KeVaughn Allen would stake Florida to a 48-33 edge at halftime with another three to close a first half against Kentucky, his third in that very context in his career.
But Florida has often failed to be as vigorous in the second half as in the first, and fear was rampant on Twitter about a recurrence of that phenomenon on this day.
It didn’t happen initially, as the Gators sank their first six shots of the second period and extended their lead to 23 points, but it did happen, with Kentucky switching to a 2-3 zone manned by small trees that gave the undersized Gators fits by slowing down their offense and preventing the dribble-kick drives that Chiozza is excellent at executing.
Florida led 64-44 at the 14:40 mark after a Mike Okauru lay-in, and missed nine straight shots over the next eight minutes before Hudson got a shooter’s roll — or three — on a corner three with 6:19 to play that ended Kentucky’s foray into single-digit range of the Gators just 29 seconds after it began.
The Gators didn’t collapse this time, though. Their lead was too big, and their defense too tenacious — Kentucky made up just 11 points on Florida over that field goal-less stretch, largely because the Wildcats only made four shots of their own in that span, and scuffled at the foul line.
And in the end, when Chiozza (nine points, four assists, three rebounds, and a steal) got back to the playmaking form that helped him become a Gators legend, and Allen (nine points, seven assists, seven rebounds) made another three, and Koulechov (16 points) and Hudson (22) capped their home career and season (and maybe career) in fine form, Florida cruised to the finish, leading by 15 in the final minute before two free throws sealed the final margin.
Simply, the Gators proved to once again be too much for a more talented, healthier, and bigger Kentucky squad, sweeping the Wildcats for the first time since the fabled 2013-14 Florida team’s undefeated SEC campaign and for just the sixth time in school history.
Three of the Florida teams to accomplish that feat to date finished their seasons at the Final Four. Two of them won the national championship — in consecutive years.
That sort of achievement doesn’t seem anything like a lock for these Gators, who have the capacity for both greatness and medocrity, and sometimes seem to toggle between the two.
But given how they play at their best, would it be a shock?