Wildcats Survive Florida; Calipari Says ‘May As Well Win’ SEC Tournament
After his team had knocked off Alabama in the SEC Tournament quarterfinal round Friday afternoon, Florida coach Billy Donovan was asked about the fact that the Gators didn’t defend or rebound all that well, but still managed to win the game.
“Ten threes,” he said, “the greatest equalizer in college basketball.”
His ballclub on Saturday buried 11 triples, but they weren’t enough. The top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats survived and advanced after a second straight difficult afternoon.
“I told them coming in to this tournament, “ said UK coach John Calipari, “I just want us to play well and make sure when this tournament is over, we’re ready for that next tournament.
“Three games in three days, I don’t like it,” said Calipari, repeating remarks that prompt any number of reactions from Big Blue fans – from queasiness to downright anger. But listen to the rest:
“What I told them (prior to the first game) was, Kentucky is different; 15,000 people come here. They can’t get in Rupp Arena, so they come here, or wherever we play. They save all year so they can come to this. So you have an obligation to come in here and play to win.”
And the message to his team after the win over Florida was more direct. “I told them… if we had lost and played well, I would have been fine, and we walk on. But now that you’re in the championship game, you might as well play it to win it. You’re here. You gotta play the game. Let’s go for it.”
The Wildcats looked in the opening minutes like a team ready to take a loss and walk on – minus the “playing well” part.
The Gators eased out to a 10-point lead with 8:42 left in the first half on a three-pointer by freshman guard Bradley Beal, who hung up 12 on the Wildcats in the opening period. It would be his final bucket of the half, as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist took over as his primary defender.
The Cats managed to trim the lead to 33-30 on a layup by Marquis Teague with 5:25 left, but the Gators slipped away again, opening up a 39-32 margin a minute later.
That’s when Kentucky put the clamps on Florida. The Wildcats held the Gators scoreless for the last 4:25 of the first half and scored eight straight, including a sweet jumper by Marquis Teague with the shot clock running out. Teague lost Gator guard Kenny Boynton with a crossover dribble and drained one from the elbow, following through on advice he’d received the night before at the team hotel from his coach. Calipari had wanted to discuss Teague’s disappearance in the win over LSU.
“They weren’t playing him, and he got a little bit flustered by it,” Calipari said. “I just told him again, You can’tplay to score, because that hurst our team. But you have to pick your spots and score. Shoot foul line shots, drive it right there, pull up and shoot it.
“It’s hard playing point guard for us. The other guys, when they get the ball, they’re trying to put it in the basket. He’s gotta run us, he’s gotta call the offense. He’s a youngster and he’s doing fine. “
Teague finished with 15 points, five assists and only three turnovers in 35 minutes.
“I just tried to come out and run my team,” Teague said, “do what we need to do to win – get people the ball where they need it to score and take my shots when I was open. Just do what Coach Cal asked me to do.”
It was UK knocking them down late in the first half, including a three-pointer from Anthony Davis with 15 seconds left, taking a 40-39 lead to the locker room.
It had been a relatively clean game thus far; the Wildcats had turned it over but three times, the Gators, four. Both teams shot only two free throws. THAT would change dramatically in the second half, to the consternation of Donovan.
It was all good for the visitors midway through the second half. Trading threes for two, Florida slipped off to a five-point lead, 54-49, with 11:40 left. Then the Cats went on a run that made their spurt late in the first half look charming by comparison.
Kentucky shut down Florida for 6:35, moving out to a 65-56 lead with about seven minutes left. This is usually the time when the other team folds its tent. Not Florida. Not today.
“When we have a nine-point lead, normally we put people away,” Calipari said. “They’re a really good team.”
Murphy, who had scored the first five points of the second period, scored seven straight, trimming UK’s margin to 65-63 with 2:43 remaining. That’s when Kentucky’s parade of free throw shooters began. In fact, following Terrence Jones’ follow slam with 7:44 to play, giving UK a 62-56 lead, the Cats scored just one more field goal, on a layup by Davis. Their other 10 points came at the free throw line. Florida shot just two free throws (both in the first half). Kentucky was 1-of-2 in the first period; 14-of-18 in the second.
“I don’t understand how, in a game like that, we get to the free throw line two times,” Donovan said. “I thought our guys were battling in there and I thought their guys were battling. I thought it got to a point in the second half where it was kind of like everybody was taking each other down, because no one wanted to give up anything easy.
“But when you see from our bench in the second half, Patric Young getting pushed in the back constantly, constantly, constantly, and there’s no whistle… I mean, to me, it’s really hard to overcome 20 free throws to two. There’s no way in a game like that.
“I’m not saying we didn’t foul them. But I mean, we got to the free throw line two times? We had a hard time overcoming that.”
Those numbers were, indeed, lopsided, but so were the three-point figures. Kentucky made just five of 17 from outside the arc; Florida buried 11 of 22. And with Young banging inside with the UK front-liners, it could have been a preview of the type of game the young Wildcats might play in the next tournament – the important one.
But according to Donovan, who knows something about NCAA title teams, this UK squad will be a tough out – particularly because of Davis.
“I think the worst thing to do is to guess that he can’t block your shot,” Donovan said. Davis was credited with just two blocks Saturday but he also grabbed a game high 12 rebounds to go with 15 points. “He’s so quick and so long and so athletic that he alters shots in a way that none of these players across the country are used to. There’s never been a shot blocker like him. Most players have not played against a player like him with this length.”
Teams that run up against the Wildcats won’t have the same luxury SEC teams have had – actual experience in facing UK’s defense, spearheaded by Davis.
“As a coach, when you’re preparing for Kentucky,” Donovan said, “you can talk about Davis and his shot-blocking ability, but it’s one of those things, unless you’ve played against it a couple times, it really can take you off guard. Because you think you can get the ball up on the glass, you think you can get it over him, and that’s the worst thing.”
We’ll find out tomorrow night which team will get the short straw – the number 16 seed in UK’s region, which will be paired off with the Wildcats in the NCAA tournament. But first, there’s a matter of Sunday’s championship game. And it likely will be just as tough to win as the first two games.
“I’ve got this team that has this will to win,” Calipari said. “They have great pride. Every one of these experiences is good for my team. We’re the fifth-youngest team in the country, so every time this kind of experience comes up, it’s good for them.”
It might not be good for the collective blood pressure of the Big Blue Nation, but perhaps it will pay off in the end – three weeks from now, right here in New Orleans.