LEXINGTON — Fighting like a drowning man in desperation, Kentucky returned safely to shore and kept is NCAA tournament hopes alive with a 61-57 triumph over Florida on Saturday at Rupp Arena.
The Wildcats, who suffered back-to-back losses at Arkansas and Georgia during the previous seven days, fended off the Gators with an old-fashioned defensive approach that kept the Southeastern Conference regular-season champions scoreless in the last 7 minutes, 35 seconds and gave the Wildcats a runner-up finish in the conference and a double-bye for next week's league tournament in Nashville, Tenn.
“They swam like heck,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of his team's performance in the final seven minutes. “When it was in doubt, they swam like heck. When you're going to drown, you want to die, don't swim. If you want to live, the life raft is over there (and) you've got to swim to it. … It's like breezing away from you, so you're going to have to swim real hard, and they did.”
It appeared the Wildcats were lifeless after Florida used a 19-5 run midway through the second half to build a 57-50 lead with 7:28 remaining. It was then that they came back to life and made the necessary stops to avoid a third-straight loss for the first time this season.
Kentucky guard Julius Mays wasn't distraught during the Gators' monstrous run, and the senior liked the way his team responded in his final home game.
“We could have easily packed it up and (quit playing),” said Mays, who scored 13 points. “We were getting stops and they couldn't score. We just kept fighting and fighting. Archie (Goodwin) had some good plays and Willie had some good plays and made some free throws. We re-took the lead and once we got it (back), we didn't let it go.”
Although Florida misfired on several shots down the stretch, Gators coach Billy Donovan wasn't disappointed in his team's performance and thought his team “executed very well,” especially in the final seven minutes, a stretch that led to his team's demise.
“I can't put the ball in the basket for them. But I can put them into position to be successful,” Donovan said. “There have been some times this year where I haven't been totally happy with our execution and decision-making coming down the stretch, I actually thought (we had some good looks). You've got to be able (to score).”
The Gators missed 10 field goals, including three layups during the final seven minutes, while Kentucky made three of four free throws in the last 25 seconds to seal the deal. Florida forward Patrick Murphy said the Wildcats “just made more plays than us.”
“That's what it came down to down the stretch,” Murphy said. “They were doing the same things (on defense) they had been doing the whole game. We had some shots we just missed and they made some plays on the other end.”
Kentucky guard Archie Goodwin said the difference-maker was the team's ability to communicate defensively, which led to successful stops and a pair of easy baskets in transition.
“We got down, but we had to fight and just sustain their run and we did,” Goodwin said. “Everyone rotated to where we were supposed to and we had moments where we needed to scamble and we did that as well. We made them take tough shots.”
Forward Alex Poythress agreed with Goodwin.
“We just locked up and played defense,” Poythress said. “All five people were all talking, switching and communicating. We held them to one shot and rebounded the misses. We just played defense, really.”