On a day that started with a special ceremony for a one-time future NBA player — the one who was supposed to lead Florida a year ago, the one who had his life cruelly interrupted by calamity last fall, the one whose absence has shaped the nearly two full Gators seasons that have followed — Florida played with all the heart and soul it could summon against a Kentucky team that seems Final Four-bound at least.
Heart and soul lose out to talent a lot. And they did on this day, too.
Oscar Tshiebwe steadied his Wildcats and Florida hailed bricks in a 71-63 loss that likely means the Gators will have to do serious damage in the SEC Tournament to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Having a player like Tshiebwe — or like Keyontae Johnson — might have helped the Gators on this day. The ‘Cats center mauled Florida in the paint again, making 11 of 16 shots against stout defense from Colin Castleton for 27 points and collecting just about his usual sum of 15 rebounds. After being destroyed on the offensive glass in the season’s earlier meeting, Florida actually limited Kentucky there in this game — Kentucky had just eight offensive boards, and Tshiebwe just four — but most of those second chances seemed to lead to second-chance points, often blunting or sabotaging Florida runs.
And the Gators could not find ways to make big shots that could have swung the score in their favor. Florida went just 3-for-20 from three in this game, its worst display from distance in terms of total makes all season and one surpassed in poor percentage only by a 4-for-29 night — without Castleton — in a loss at Ole Miss.
Tyree Appleby and Myreon Jones combined to go 2-for-11 from range, and Kowacie Reeves and Brandon McKissic also missed multiple threes off the bench — but Florida still somehow managed to string together enough stops late to slice a Kentucky lead that was frequently in double digits to just six points with under a minute to go.
And when the Gators forced a turnover on an inbounds pass to nowhere much like they did against Vanderbilt on Tuesday, the stage was set for another absurd comeback — only this time, the open three Phlandrous Fleming got when the defense sucked in on a driving Appleby and a dangerous Castleton clanged off the front iron.
Castleton was excellent on the day, fighting through more than a few fouls — many uncalled, in a game that featured very lenient officiating and physical play down low — for a Senior Day double-double of 23 points and 11 boards. Fleming was decent, with seven points, six rebounds, and three assists. Anthony Duruji scored his 10 points in typically blink-and-you-missed-them fashion, hitting one of the Gators’ threes and a couple of first-half jumpers but otherwise making little mark on the scoresheet. And McKissic and Niels Lane combined for 12 points off the bench, with McKissic also dishing four assists — including an excellent bounce pass between defenders in transition for a Lane dunk in the first half.
The rest of the Gators — Appleby, Jones, and Reeves — combined for 11 points on 16 shots, and Appleby went 1-for-4 from the line, where he has usually been superb, including a 1-for-3 trip after a foul on a three-pointer.
And that lack of offensive punch helped short-circuit Florida’s attempts to come back in a game that it never led. Kentucky pounced early with a game-opening 7-0 run, led by 16 twice in the first half, and punched back after a 10-0 Gators run narrowed that lead to six points by producing its own 6-0 run into halftime.
After halftime, the Wildcats fended off more charges: A 5-0 spurt out of the locker room was greeted by an 8-2 response, every point coming from Tshiebwe; though Sahvir Wheeler and Kellen Grady throwing in floaters helped keep Kentucky ahead for most of the second half, a personal 6-0 run from Castleton got Florida back in striking distance — and it was met by Tshiebwe scoring maybe his biggest basket by burrowing under Castleton late in the shot clock to catch a feed and throw up a run-ender.
And though Florida held Kentucky scoreless for almost three minutes after that bucket — the Wildcats’ only made field goal in the last 6:11 of play — the Gators could not get closer than the six-point deficit that Fleming could have halved.
It was an emotional crowd in the O’Dome, one that honored Johnson as warmly as both teams did, cheering for him throughout a pregame that made room for him to have a special day. He changed into a jersey to participate in warmups with a finishing dunk, was announced as a starter, took the floor for and received the game’s opening tip, and left to an ovation — and, one suspects, hundreds or thousands of teary eyes — after calling timeout and kissing the Gator Head logo near midcourt.
Both Florida and Kentucky should be saluted for making that happen for Keyontae, who deserved so much more than this sort of bittersweet Senior Day.
But while both Florida and Kentucky should be saluted for composing themselves to play the game that followed, only Kentucky won it — and only Kentucky is likely to make the cut for this year’s March Madness.
And now, barring something unexpected and special in Tampa, Florida faces a future that will feature fans frustrated by a program that has not been able to routinely reach the rarefied air it climbed to under the coach whose name is signed on that court since his departure from Gainesville.