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By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — No one had to tell Florida coach Billy Donovan what to expect her Saturday. He thought his Gators would see a “desperate team” fighting to save its season — and he was right.
Kentucky suddenly found the so-called will to win it has lacked almost all season and, after a disappointing loss at Georgia Thursday, rallied to beat Florida 61-57. It was a win UK had to have to keep alive any hopes of making the NCAA Tournament without winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Even now, UK might not be in, but at least it has a chance to be back in the tourney conversation.
“I would say that it had something to do with it because we know that. But we wanted to have a good seed going into the SEC Tournament,” said UK freshman Archie Goodwin. “But more than anything, we just wanted to win.”
Kentucky trailed 57-50 with 7:36 left. The veteran Gators, who had already won the SEC title and are a Final Four contender, seemed set to put the game away. Instead, Florida didn’t score again and UK got just enough offense to set off a celebration in Rupp Arena that was far greater than the one two weeks ago following an ESPN GameDay overtime win over Missouri.
Why? Because this game UK showed the fight it has lacked way too many games. Instead of wilting, the Cats fought back. They delivered punches and took punches, but this time they at least did not quit punching.
“I wouldn’t say they played harder here (than in a loss at Florida), but today they just made more plays,” Florida forward Eric Murphy said.
They did make more plays, but they also played harder. Ask John Calipari. Ask any UK player. Ask any UK fan.
“I think all our fans, all they’ve wanted to see from this team is this kind of effort,” Calipari said. “We can all live with this. Doesn’t mean you are going to win every game, but you’re going to fight like heck and give yourselves a chance. This kind of fight and effort where we look like a team, where guys aren’t breaking off and doing their own thing, it’s what everybody wants to see. It’s what I want to see as a coach, too.”
Maybe this is the day the Cats grew up a bit. Alex Poythress promised Friday he would play with more effort — and he did. He had a career-high 12 rebounds (maybe it is not a coincidence that UK is 5-0 when he gets nine or more rebounds) and nine points. More importantly, he battled for most of the 32 minutes he played.
Goodwin struggled scoring early, but had 16 points and a career-high four steals, including two he converted into dunks. One came after he drove the lane, missed a shot and got knocked down. But he got up and made a steal at midcourt to offset the miss.
Willie Cauley-Stein, another freshman, played the final 11:16 with four fouls. Calipari told him to keep his feet on the floor and not foul because UK needed him in the game — and Cauley-Stein listened and avoided fouls. He finished with six points, eight rebounds, four blocks, one steal and one assist.
“I think they grew up,” senior Julius Mays, who scored 13 points and made his Senior Day special by hitting two free throws with 9.4 seconds left that sealed the win. “They didn’t have any choice. They knew, like I said, it was do-or-die and that we needed this win more than anything. They stepped up big and we came out with the win.”
And don’t forget about point guard Ryan Harrow. He was abused in back-to-back road losses at Arkansas and Georgia. In this game, he made smart decisions, protected the ball and hit key shots. He finished with 13 points, two assists and just one turnover in 31 minutes. He also avoided another foul after picking up his third with almost 14 minutes to play.
“If Ryan plays the way he’s capable of playing … he had one turnover … we’re pretty good. A lot of it is he has to play,” Calipari said.
Donovan wasn’t quite ready to anoint Kentucky as a NCAA Tournament team.
“They certainly have a lot of individual talented pieces. There’s no question about that. When you take a guy like Nerlens Noel off the floor it would be like us having to play the rest of our season without Patric Young. It’s very difficult to do,” Donovan said. “With Nerlens they are extremely special, because you can play inside together. It makes it tough to score around the basket with those two guys (Cauley-Stein and Noel).
“I think they are good enough — Kentucky — talent-wise to play with anybody. I haven’t seen everybody out there in the country, but it’s hard when you lose a player like that, and you have to adjust. Can they beat anybody? Absolutely, they are talented and gifted enough, but I think they’re probably still learning to play without Nerlens.”
He’s right. But maybe, just maybe, the Cats figured out they at least have to play with more energy and poise than they did at Arkansas or Georgia. If they do and win at least two games in the SEC Tournament — UK will be the No. 2 seed — and that likely would get them in the NCAA tourney.
“The good news is we have no more road games,” Calipari said. “We don’t have to go on the road. Nashville (site of the SEC Tournament) has been a good home for us. So it’s not like we’re not going to have some people there.”
And probably a lot more than UK might have had it if had not showed the fight it did to win this game.