By Lizzie Hull
Photos courtesy SEC Digital
For the 11th time in coach John Calipari’s 13 years at Kentucky, the Wildcats have finished with 25 wins or more heading into the SEC Tournament. The Cats will be the No. 3 seed down in Tampa after sweeping the Florida Gators in the regular season with an 83-72 win.
True to Kentucky basketball form this season, the main man getting it done was national Player of the Year candidate Oscar Tshiebwe.
Tshiebwe led the Wildcats in dominant fashion, finishing with 27 points and 15 rebounds. His 25th double-double this season and 13th straight furthered his campaign for NPOY.
“The things that he’s doing haven’t been done for 50 years,” Calipari said. “So how could you not do it (vote for Tshiebwe)? I’m proud of him.”
Tshiebwe after the game sounded as though he’s proud of himself – and rightfully so.
”Sometimes I can’t believe what I’m doing,” Tshiebwe said. ”How? This is impossible. I’m in college and everybody can play. … The confidence right now is at a different level.”
While the Wildcats maintained the lead for the entire game, the Gators never let them run away with it.
Both teams would struggle from behind the arc Saturday afternoon. Kentucky would not score any threes in the second half and Florida just one, forcing Colin Castleton to play Tshiebwe inside, making this a battle of the big men.
Castleton did his best to play on a Tshiebwe level, putting up a team-high 23 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Both Tshiebwe and Castleton were the only players to produce double digit scoring in the second half.
Kentucky led it 38-26 at halftime, but after starting the second period with two quick fouls, Sahvir Wheeler headed for the bench with three personals. The Wildcats got him back just when they needed him. Wheeler came back and quickly put up a 6-0 run that appeared to give the Wildcats the boost they needed to finish big, the Cats leading 61-47 with 7:06 left.
Castleton went on a personal eight-point run of his own, Wheeler answering with just one bucket, and the Gators cut it to eight at 63-55 with 3:49 to play.
A layup by Tshiebwe pushed the UK advantage back to 10; the Gators trimmed it to six with :53 left. Four straight free throws by Tyty Washington made it a 10-point game again and the Wildcats hung on.
“I thought we really guarded until the last two minutes.” said Calipari. “We didn’t want to foul, so they shot three layups.”
In their final outing of the regular season, the Wildcats again had four players in double digits. Wheeler finished with 13, Kellan Grady had 11 and Mintz 10, joining Tshiebwe.
The Wildcats (25-6, 14-4 SEC) will head to the SEC tournament having secured a double-bye, propelling them into the quarterfinal. Kentucky will take the court for the first time in Tampa Friday, March 11. Tip is set for around 8:30 on the SEC Network.