LEXINGTON — If you’re more of a glass is half full kind of person, you can point to several positives from 14th-ranked Kentucky’s 69-59 loss to the No. 3-ranked Florida Gators Saturday night at Rupp Arena.
You could mention Kentucky’s 47.6 percent shooting from the field against an experienced Florida team that is generally solid on the defensive end.
You could mention Kentucky’s 31-28 rebounding edge against a bunch of Gators, that — while not as tall as the Wildcats — are much stronger physically than the Cats.
You could note that Kentucky led Florida, 45-38, with 11 minutes left, or that the score was tied 53-53 with six minutes left or that the Wildcats were still within three, 60-57, with 3:24 to go.
But my gut feeling is that all of these relatively happy thoughts may be sugar coating reality for the Wildcats, who fell to 19-6 overall and 9-3 in the Southeastern Conference, while the Gators won for the 17th straight time, improving to 23-2 and 12-0.
My fear is this: Thanks in part to a roaring capacity crowd (the rich people at Rupp may be generally complacent, but they respond to a big game as well as any crowd in the country) the oh-so-young Wildcats were able to hold their own for 30-some minutes against a Florida team that starts four seniors.
But when the game was on the line down the stretch, the Gators played like men and the Wildcats looked like freshmen.
Florida outscored Kentucky,, 31-14, over the last 11 minutes. Kentucky had only four field goals during that stretch, and scored only six points in the final six minutes.
“No one has ever won a game with 11 minutes left,” said Florida senior center Patric Young. “We stuck to our guns, kept playing basketball, and got it done.”
As an aside, I’ve never seen Kentucky coach John Calipari yell at his players during games as much as he has this season.
My question about that is this: How can you, on the one hand, tell us over and over and over how young your players are, and then spend so much time in their faces because the players are playing like, well, freshmen?
And I wonder if Calipari is setting the team up for much the same next season because he does not take advantage of opportunities to play reputedly talented youngsters like Derek Willis and Marcus Lee.
It drove me nuts recently when the Wildcats led Georgia by 23 points at home with four minutes to go, and instead of putting in Lee or Willis, Calipari put Julius Randle back in the game. As if Randle needed four more minutes.
I was also bothered Saturday night that Calipari didn’t do much to take ownership of a technical foul he was whistled for with 8:14 to go and Kentucky ahead, 48-47.
Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin hit two free throws as a result, and then Casey Prather canned a jump shot on the resulting possession to put the Gators on top, 51-48.
Kentucky never sniffed momentum thereafter.
When asked what happened on the technical, Calipari replied, “You have to ask him,’’ referring to official Michael Stephens. “I was speaking softly. I don’t know what he heard me say with my back to him, so you have to ask him.”
Safe to say, that, because the media is not granted post-game access to officials.
Calipari seemed to be yelling at the officials throughout the game, when he wasn’t getting on his players, that is.
Maybe that technical foul wasn’t justified, but given Calipari’s frequent rants, it can’t come as a shock that the officials snapped at some point.
All this said, I don’t believe Calipari’s technical foul cost his team Saturday’s game. But, we won’t ever know.
Some of the answers to all of this will come when Kentucky and Florida meet again, March 8, in Gainesville.
My gut tells me that could be a bloodbath in the Gators’ favor. My gut tells me that if Kentucky and Florida played 100 times at Rupp, the Gators would win 90. On a neutral court, Florida would win 95, and in Gainesville, maybe 99 times.
Saturday’s game reinforces my belief that this season is not going to end well for Kentucky.
Freshman guard Andrew Harrison played well for the Wildcats Saturday until the final four minutes when he was dominated by Florida’s Wilbekin. Wilbekin, a senior, was fantastic down the stretch, finishing with 23 points.
Harrison led UK with 20 points, followed by freshman forward James Young with 19 points, and Randle with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
Prather was terrific throughout for Florida, finishing with 24 points.
The 6-foot-9, 240-pound Young finished with 10 points.
Kentucky plays at Ole Miss Tuesday night at 7 on ESPN. The Wildcats return home Saturday to take on LSU at 4, also on ESPN.