The Florida Gators know the story when they travel to Rupp Arena: In a cathedral for college basketball’s most sacred team, the faithful are fervent, and the adjudicators seldom as impartial as they are meant to be.
That narrative played out again on Saturday in Rupp, even with Kentucky’s flock cut to just thousands from the tens of thousands usually in church on Saturdays.
Florida won anyway.
Tre Mann scored 21 points and had eight rebounds, three other Florida starters joined him in double figures, and the Gators rose to the occasion down the stretch in the second half to score a rare and precious 71-67 win in Lexington.
Mann and Tyree Appleby (11 points, five assists, three steals) helped Florida invert its typical struggles against John Calipari’s band of five-star recruits by driving smartly rather than heedlessly for the most part, and the Gators shot 52 percent from the field and 47 percent from three as a result.
Strong Florida defense also stymied the Wildcats, who shot 40 percent from the field and 20 percent from three, getting more than a third of their points on 25-for-29 shooting from the free throw line. 19 Florida fouls generated those 29 Kentucky free throws, while 15 fouls by Kentucky led to just 16 charity-stripe shots for the Gators, 14 of which went down.
None of those were bigger than the four Appleby and Mann hit in the final minute to keep Florida out in front — and the first by Appleby, which took multiple bounces and spun back in off the front rim, was as memorable as a made free throw can be.
But Kentucky’s discrepancy at the line helped build a 10-point lead that the Gators would have to erase in the first half — with an 8-0 run featuring two threes and a Scottie Lewis alley-oop doing much of the work — and kept the ‘Cats close all day. And Florida’s 16 turnovers fueled lethal transition action by the boys in blue, who wrestled back a lead the Gators held for much of the second half by turning consecutive turnovers into runout dunks just before the final media timeout.
Down 62-61 entering that final four minutes, Florida got a three from Appleby on the first possession within them and then a difficult 18-foot baseline jumper from Mann to extend its lead to four points. Kentucky would close to within two points on a layup by Isaiah Jackson — whose foul trouble was Florida’s chief benefit from the officiating — but could not get closer than that in the last minute of play even with a dubious call granting Davion Mintz two free throws with 11 seconds remaining.
With the victory — just its 11th at Rupp Arena in program history — Florida has positioned itself very well for the No. 3 seed in the 2021 SEC Tournament, and ended any honest conversation about whether it will make the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
To the victor, on this day, go the spoils.