Florida lost to Kentucky in the way that Florida has often lost to Kentucky at Rupp in recent years on Saturday: It was close, Kentucky got some calls and hit some shots, and it stayed close but went the Wildcats’ way.
We should not be surprised, as Gators fans, to see this. Perhaps not dismayed, either, though my own level of sanguinity after a loss like that is probably more personal than most. The simple fact is that we’ve seen it before — a lot.
Last year, a 13-2 run in the first half put Florida on top briefly entering halftime, and the Gators vied for the lead early in the second half before ultimately falling, 66-57.
In 2018, Florida ... wait, Florida won at Kentucky in 2018, and swept the season series from the Wildcats? Huh. That doesn’t help my thesis about Mike White being a bad coach.
In 2017, Florida led Kentucky 8-0, 18-6 and 52-44 at Rupp ... and lost, by 10, in a game in which Kentucky shot 21 more free throws than the Gators’ six.
The immortal 2014 “Forever Gators” trailed by seven in the second half at Rupp, then executed one of the finest closes any Florida team ever has in Lexington, earning Casey Prather the right to say the still-perfect “We love the silence.”
The year before, the framework of that same team and seniors Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, and Mike Rosario led 57-50 with just over five minutes to go — and lost. I was there. My fellow sociology graduate’s face at that link was basically mine.
Florida lost by 20 at Kentucky with Bradley Beal on the court. A 2011 Gators that would win 29 games never led the Wildcats in the second half at Rupp.
On and on this list can go.
And, to our credit, most Florida fans did not seem overly upset about it. Some of those who are making their notoriety on grinding an ax and bringing it to White’s throat were, albeit in the sort of performative, “Why aren’t you mad like I am?” way that has typically evinced a disregard for context or history and an interest in immiseration rather than commiseration. (The guy whose name is new on Florida’s court had two more wins over the teams named at that link in his first five years than White does — and one of those two programs was in a far different place in the late ‘90s than it is today, rendering that cherry-picking even less useful.)
But, yeah, the simple truth is what it is: Kentucky is one of the blue-bloods in men’s college basketball, a program with a history longer and richer than practically the rest of its conference combined. Florida making headway against the Wildcats, whether with wins earned by a team that would win back-to-back national titles or season sweeps by other good teams or whatever, has gotten Florida to 40 wins over Kentucky in its history; Kentucky has 100 wins over Florida.
And those 40 wins certainly haven’t all come at Rupp.
Florida is — and I’ve argued this for the better part of a decade now — the SEC’s impudent nouveau riche powerhouse in both of the signature sports in college athletics. And that makes its ceiling higher and harder to hit: The Gators being great at football is always going to be something that can be mitigated by Alabama being great; same with men’s basketball and Kentucky. (You could even argue that Florida baseball’s rise was similarly checked in-conference by LSU, but it’s not the same: LSU, great though it has been, is not the college baseball blue-blood, and the sport really lacks an Alabama- or Kentucky-style colossus.)
Florida has never backed down from this challenge. Its reigns ran right through Alabama and Kentucky (and LSU). Its runs to the mountaintop going forward will require casting the Crimson Tide and Wildcats to the abyss now and then. The road isn’t changing; the Gators’ determination to walk it won’t, either.
But it’s okay to occasionally consider how treacherous it is, I think, and to be satisfied with — or at least not devastated by —with determination and valor in losses when the odds are stacked against wins.