Florida led first in Rupp Arena on Saturday, the first Colin Castleton midrange jumper on a day with surprisingly many of them staking the Gators to a 2-0 lead over mighty Kentucky.
When the Wildcats flexed and ripped off a 20-4 run in response, that lead meant nothing.
But Florida did fight back, despite losing the dynamic Tyree Appleby to injury, its own 15-2 run helping keep the first half tight.
It’s just that Oscar Tshiebwe was, as usual, the baddest man on the floor.
Kentucky’s premier post player pounded away at the Gators inside, controlling much of the late first half and the second and ultimately putting up 27 points and 19 rebounds in a game that the Wildcats pulled away to win by a 78-57 count.
Maybe more importantly, though, he helped demonstrate the sizable gap between Kentucky’s blue-blooded perennial powerhouse and Florida’s scrappy but scuffling programs at present.
Florida’s runs — its 15-2 spurt in the first half was just one of two spurts to slice a Kentucky lead down to single digits, with the Gators turning a 46-30 deficit in the second half into a 50-42 disadvantage thanks to a 12-4 run capped by consecutive Myreon Jones threes — were the Gators’ best play on the day, strong stretches in which Kentucky missed enough shots or made an error or two to be pounced on.
But the Gators made just five of 22 threes, many of the misses meaning they could not stop a Kentucky run or make one of their own more threatening — and Kentucky simply didn’t make many mistakes. The Wildcats had just five turnovers, made 10 of 27 threes — or two off their season high for makes on their season high for takes, the latter of which might count as a scouting report victory given Kentucky’s notorious avoidance of threes when it can help it — and piled up 18 offensive rebounds (10 by Tshiebwe alone) while conceding just five to Florida.
Florida was perfect from the line and rather good inside the arc, with Castleton drilling jumpers to get many of his team-high 18 points helping substantially with that. But the Gators shot just six free throws — Kentucky was whistled for just nine fouls! — and had precious few transition chances, with the Wildcats’ thoroughbreds racing back after those few turnovers.
And all along the way, there was Tshiebwe, seemingly always generating a second chance or scoring over a mismatch. Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington — the latter of whom left and did not return after Brandon McKissic collided with his lower legs after diving at a ball he fumbled away with his dribble, leading to boos on every subsequent touch — combined for just 19 points on 20 shots; it didn’t matter, not with Tshiebwe steadying and steering the ship and Kellan Grady and Davion Mintz combining for seven threes and 26 points.
This loss won’t matter much for Florida’s NCAA Tournament aspirations, either, with the Wildcats inching closer to inking their name at the top of a region. Losing this game, even by 21, mostly represents missing an opportunity to win it.
But the loss the Gators sustained during it, with Tyree Appleby sustaining what was later termed a hamstring injury while coming around a defender in the first half, may be massive.
Appleby would not return before halftime after getting hurt with 13:32 to go in the first period, and was seen on the bench with his thigh iced and wrapped. After halftime, he made a cameo appearance, but a very short and ineffective one that coincided with Kentucky breaking from the gates with a 13-2 burst.
A healthy Appleby probably doesn’t swing the outcome of this game. But if Appleby is unable to play or be close to full health going forward, as Florida gets other — and more favorable — opportunities to collect Quadrant 1 wins that it has not been able to secure this year, then it’s possible the Gators lost a lot more than this game on this day.
And for a team that has enough fight to inspire pride but may simply lack the talent to turn that into the victories it needs to get to the NCAA Tournament from here on in, that might be one more bitter pill to swallow.