LEXINGTON — Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell talked at length Sunday about a basketball team that’s tough, plays with energy and plays through adversity.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking about his own sixth-ranked Wildcats.
Mitchell was describing the visiting, unranked Florida Gators who erased a nine-point, second-half deficit and beat UK in a stunner, 83-73, at Memorial Coliseum.
Florida improved to 12-3 overall and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference, while Kentucky fell to 13-2 and 1-1 and did severe damage to its hopes for a regular-season conference title.
As Florida senior guard Jaterra Bonds so aptly put it: “This is a big win for us, especially on the road, because it counts double.”
Meaning, if you have title hopes in a league as tough as the Southeastern Conference, you don’t lose at home and you rarely beat an upper echelon SEC team on the road.
The Gators are clearly an NCAA Tournament team, but they are not Tennessee, not LSU and probably not even South Carolina, Georgia or Vanderbilt.
Kentucky still has to go to Gainesville (Feb. 9) for a rematch with Florida.
The Wildcats play at South Carolina Thursday, at Georgia Jan. 30 and at Tennessee Feb. 16, and they have a home date with LSU Feb. 2.
LSU beat Tennessee at Knoxville, 80-77, Thursday.
Even more disheartening for Mitchell’s team is the way Sunday’s loss went down.
Florida coach Amanda Butler had only eight players at her disposal, which will usually doom any Kentucky opponent because the Wildcats go at least 12 deep. Ninety-nine times out of 100 Kentucky will wear down a team as thin as the Gators.
Instead, Kentucky’s full-court defensive pressure never did consistent damage in this game, forcing just 18 turnovers.
It was Florida’s defense, primarily a 2-3 zone, that completely bottled up the Wildcats, especially over the final 13 minutes of the game.
Kentucky scored just one field goal — an acrobatic layup by guard Jennifer O’Neill with 8:04 to go that put her team up, 66-61.
Florida outscored Kentucky, 22-7, the rest of the way.
I repeat: This was stunning.
“I thought there were certain times out there where we didn’t look really sharp mentally,” Mitchell said. “That is not going to help you very much in a game where the opponent is very sharp mentally and wants to play really hard and is hungry for the win.
“You guys watched it. It was really evident who played with more passion. I am just so disappointed that happened and that we were outplayed from an energy standpoint and from a focus standpoint. It looked like it meant a lot more to them than it did to us.”
And it looked like the Wildcats were going to get away with it when they erased an early 11-point deficit and led 62-53 with 12 minutes left.
“Then we just stopped moving the basketball, and lost our poise,” Mitchell said. “I thought our point guards really stopped moving the ball and started playing around behind screens.”
Guilty as charged, suggested O’Neill, the player Mitchell had at the point most of the time down the stretch.
“(Mitchell was saying) We were dancing around with the ball,” O’Neill said. “(But) I was not trying to force shots or force plays or do things by myself.”
Whatever, the damage was done, thanks largely to 23 points from Florida’s Bonds and 19 points and 10 rebounds from freshman forward Ronni Williams.
O’Neill led Kentucky with 15 points, but was just 4 of 13 from the field, along with six turnovers.
The Wildcats also hurt themselves with 17 of 30 free throw shooting for 56.7 percent, to Florida’s 24 of 31 for 77.4 percent.
But those are just numbers. Kentucky’s biggest worry is the emotional state of the team. The Wildcats did not look like a team on the same page in this debacle.
“I think some players let down towards the end of the game when we got down,” said senior forward Samarie Walker, who had 10 points and 12 rebounds.
“We just have an inconsistency on our team, and it is really disheartening to me,” Mitchell said. “I don’t know why you’d be in a situation like now where you would not be super focused. I have to figure that out.”
“I think we have voices on this team,” said UK senior guard Kastine Evans. “It’s whether we choose to listen to those voices and pull together as a team, or everybody separates by themselves. It will be a decision each and every one of us has to make.”
NOTE: UK senior center DeNesha Stallworth, out the past four weeks after minor knee surgery, returned Sunday and played seven minutes, adding four points and three rebounds.
“I thought she came in and tried to compete,” Mitchell said of the 6-3 Stallworth. “It didn’t seem like she was all that comfortable on defense. That was the tough part. But I think she will get back and it was very encouraging to have her back out there.”