In two epic duels a season ago, Oscar Tshiebwe outplayed Colin Castleton — and powered Kentucky to two wins over Florida.
In Saturday night’s clash at Rupp Arena, Castleton played maybe his best game as a collegian — and hounded Tshiebwe into one of his worst.
Kentucky beat Florida. Again and anyway.
Castleton’s majestic night — 25 points despite earning just seven free throws (all makes!) while constantly finishing through contact from Tshiebwe and others, eight rebounds, five assists, three blocks, and a steal — could not rescue Florida from another slow start, nor equalize a game largely marked by the Gators and Wildcats making runs at each other, and the Gators’ valiant effort to sweep a week of rivalry matchups fell short in a 72-67 final.
And as legendary — or Herculean, heroic, astonishing, incredible, wonderful, indefatigable; really, take your pick, because practically any positive adjective would work — as Castleton was, it felt like Florida failed to complement and compliment his magnum opus properly.
The slow start was just the first part that hurt. Florida was down 5-0 — again — after just 102 seconds of action, and looked woefully unprepared to bring the intensity necessary to survive in the proving grounds of Rupp for most of the first half, with five early points from Kowacie Reeves being more than half of the Gators’ output by the 7:47 mark, when C.J. Fredrick completed an and-one out of a media timeout to put the Wildcats up 20-9.
But Castleton started to get in gear down the stretch of the first half, and five points from Will Richard helped Florida close to a 26-22 score — only for Kentucky to rattle off the half’s last seven points and go into the locker room up 11.
Nearly the same scenario recurred multiple times in the second half. Florida fought to 37-33; Kentucky ran back to 43-33. Florida got to 48-40; Kentucky scrapped to 59-45.
Only in the last four minutes did the Gators and Wildcats trade blows back and forth on single possessions instead of runs. And while Castleton was throwing most of the Gators’ punches, Myreon Jones had maybe the shot — pun intended — of the night with 37 seconds to play, answering a couple of clutch free throws by little-used Damion Collins with a huge three to cleave a six-point edge to three.
But Florida could not capitalize on a missed free throw by Jacob Toppin — a rare error on a 17-point, 10-rebound night — hunting a Jones three in a two-man action with Castleton and settling for a bad shot that let Kentucky go the final 39:18 of action without ever leading by fewer than three points.
And though Castleton nearly eliminated Tshiebwe as a scoring threat, allowing just four points on 2-for-14 shooting, the Kentucky big still had 15 rebounds, seven of them on the offensive end, and mauled Castleton all night, forcing him to work through contact that resulted in a rare disqualification for the reigning national player of the year. Tshiebwe was probably fortunate to not hear his fifth whistle until the final few minutes, given the frequency of what looked like foul-worthy defense on Castleton — but in a game in which the refs generally let a lot of action go without calls, the physical, the-only-fouls-committed-are-the-ones-called approach by the Kentucky titan probably prevented an even bigger explosion from the growling Gator.
Besides, Florida never really had an answer for — or to — Cason Wallace.
Kentucky’s fine freshman was the night’s best revelation, pairing 20 points and seven rebounds with ferocious defense that hampered Richard (13 points, six boards — but just eight shot attempts), Reeves (a miserable 1-for-7, with that early spurt comprising his entire scoring), and Jones (2-for-8 and 1-for-4 from three) in turn. Kyle Lofton had 13 points and worked effectively for much of the night, and Riley Kugel looked better than his line (six points on 2-for-7 shooting), especially on defense; Florida’s other three guards were, at best, intermittently effective, and Wallace being steady and scoring 20 for just the second time as a Wildcat canceled out much of the edge Castleton wrung out of dominating Tshiebwe.
Florida might not get a performance like Castleton’s — a comprehensive bludgeoning in a head-to-head matchup with a national player of the year on the road — for another 10 or 20 years.
It goes down — like so many other trips to Rupp in Florida history — as a loss.
And if Florida’s win over Tennessee earlier this week was a golden dawn for a team figuring out how to win under Todd Golden, this was a golden opportunity that slipped through the Gators’ hands.