Midway through the second half, Florida was so, so close to a hammer blow that might well have put away a superb Kentucky team.
Up 42-31 with 13:18 on the clock, Florida executed another of Mike White’s legendarily good baseline out-of-bounds plays and got a lob to the hand of Kevarrius Hayes, skying over Kentucky defenders.
But he was fouled, preventing him from flushing a dunk that would have incited the O’Connell Center crowed.
And he missed the two free throws that followed.
And Kentucky seized control at about that moment, propelling itself to a 65-54 win that will leave Florida fans as frustrated as the Wildcats looked for the first 27 minutes of play.
The Gators controlled the game to that point, zipping out to a 7-2 lead and taking back a lead Kentucky briefly held with a 13-7 run over the final four minutes of the first half. Andrew Nembhard had 10 points and looked to be on his way to his finest game as a Gator. Keyontae Johnson and Kevarrius Hayes were everywhere on defense. Even Jalen Hudson was contributing, helping compensate for relatively quiet starts from KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke.
And the Gators then bolted from the gate in the second half, with a 9-2 run over the first seven minutes of the second half that had Kentucky looking frustrated and like a team heading to a baffling loss.
But Hayes couldn’t bring down the house by hammering home that dunk. And his two missed free throws — not a shocker for a player whose woes at the line have been career-long — gave Kentucky an open door.
The Wildcats stormed through it, ripping off a quick 6-0 run on the next two trips that would ultimately extend to a 10-0 stretch. But while Nembhard scored his only points of the second half on a layup to end that run, Hudson subsequently made two free throws after being fouled on a three, and Allen hit a tough runner to put the Gators up 48-43, Kentucky had another run in it — and this one would not be answered.
Over the final 7:12, Kentucky would outscore the Gators 20-6, with the 14-0 punch over the first five minutes of that span giving the Wildcats the lead for good. Tyler Herro punctuated that run with a dagger three that was part of his game-high 19 points, P.J. Washington helped lock down the Gators while not scoring his 15 points or snaring his eight rebounds, and Florida made just three shots from the 13:59 mark to the 0:38 mark in the second half, settling for a slew of jumpers that tired legs could not propel into the hoop.
Nembhard’s 12 points led Florida, and Hudson’s 11 were his most — and his first double-digit total — in 2019. Allen and Locke mustered just 17 points on 7-for-27 shooting, though, and while Johnson had eight points and a career-high 10 rebounds — five on the offensive end — in the latest impressive performance of his freshman season, he also ended up with four fouls, and picked up his third with 10:54 left in the second half, during a stretch when the officiating grew whistle-happy after being lenient for most of the day.
And, most of all, Florida’s short rotation and limited roster, which forced Allen, Hayes, Locke, and Nembhard to all turn in 30-minute nights three days after an overtime game, was simply no match for Kentucky over the full 40 minutes after overwhelming the ‘Cats for 27.
But college basketball games do still run for those full 40 minutes. And Florida is going to have to win some more of them, and soon, if it is going to reach postseason play.