The Florida Gators leading Kentucky by seven on the road at vaunted Rupp Arena? That’s happened a lot in the last two decades, as the Gators have established themselves as occasional rivals — and occasional superiors — to arguably the most storied program in college basketball.
And it happened again on Saturday night, as Florida broke out of halftime to take a 40-33 lead over Kentucky in Lexington.
But Kentucky eroding just such a lead with big shots, the benefit of questionable calls, and cold stretches from Gators teams of all stripes and proficiencies has happened time and again, too — and that’s just how the Wildcats came back to beat Florida on this night, though even the relatively close 65-59 final was deceptive.
Kentucky’s initial response to that seven-point lead? An 8-0 run in which Immanuel Quickley got two questionable calls on fouls while driving to turn makes into three-point plays. And after Florida put up four quick points in response, Quickley stepped up again, draining three straight threes to provide most of the the second half of what would end as a 19-4 run, 15 points of which came from him.
Florida was, by the end of that run, in the midst of a nearly seven-minute field goal drought — and yet the Gators weren’t totally done.
Tre Mann, who had 11 points off the bench, drilled a triple to slice a six-point Kentucky lead in half, and the Wildcats getting the edge back to eight was answered in the final two minutes by Florida conjuring a 6-0 run to 61-59 from nothing, its last two points coming on a Scottie Lewis putback of his own miss from the free throw line — that opportunity at the charity stripe only coming after Florida got two steals in the backcourt on either side of what looked like an uncalled foul on a drive by Mann.
But it would be too little and too late for a Florida offense that scored just 28 points in the second half, as Kentucky finally found clean inbounds plays — one with the help of yet another iffy foul — and Tyrese Maxey sunk four late free throws to seal the game.
Florida played the Wildcats evenly in the first half thanks largely to five threes — two each by Kerry Blackshear and Mann, and one by Ques Glover at the buzzer — and some strong work by Keyontae Johnson (19 points, nine boards) and Blackshear (18 points, six rebounds) inside. After intermission, though, the Gators made just one three — a third by Mann, as Noah Locke limped to a 0-5 performance snapping a nearly season-long streak of games with a made three — and got just six points over a nearly 10-minute stretch, as Blackshear was guarded more tightly — leading to some but not all of his five turnovers — and Johnson’s drives were better cut off by a Kentucky defense that adjusted to limit him.
And with Andrew Nembhard limited to just four points, he and Locke were outscored 39-4 by Quickley (26 points) and Maxey (13 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) duo that served as Kentucky’s primary backcourt on a day when Ashton Hagans came off the bench and had six turnovers.
In all, it was a fairly common outcome for Florida at Kentucky: Game Gators doing everything in their power to make a better-on-paper Kentucky team sweat until a second-half shift have been the protagonists in a few trips to Rupp in recent years, whether under Billy Donovan or Mike White.
This year, when every missed opportunity has seemed magnified by expectations, that might be slightly more painful than it has been in the past.