LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky lost for the second time in as many games, the third time in SEC play and fifth time overall this season on Saturday night against Florida. The Wildcats coughed up mind-boggling turnovers, had another horrible 3-point shooting night, and turned a rousing start into a rotten finish again.
But strangely, when it was over, the 66-64 defeat punctuated by an uncalled takedown on UK’s tying attempt with 2.5 seconds to go and one last turnover to seal the deal, Kentucky coach John Calipari was in a wonderful mood. At the podium, at least.
“We’re going to be fine,” he told reporters. “What I saw today: That is one of the best offensive teams in the country [and] we held them to 33 percent [field goals] and 20 percent from the 3-point line. We had some freshman mistakes [but] the ability to pass the ball to one another, the ability to really scramble defensively and do some good things — we’re going to be fine.
“I was worried after South Carolina, now. I’m not worried after this. We’ll be fine.”
But will they? Calipari knows his fan base is prone to panic, and that having 5-star recruiting target Zion Williamson make a surprise commitment to archrival Duke at roughly the same time Saturday night’s game tipped off only makes things worse.
So forgive the skeptic for thinking his postgame cheer might’ve just been Calipari’s attempt to talk them — and himself — down off a ledge.
“I’m good,” he said. “I know there’s some people out there that will be panicked and all this. Be panicked. I’m glad I’m not sitting with you, because I am fine.”
Perhaps the most popular meme on the Internet today, non-Crying Jordan division, is a cartoon of a dog sitting down for coffee with a burning house all around him and the caption, “This is fine.” Calipari said the Wildcats will be “fine” six times Saturday night in front of the cameras.
He was less reassuring behind the closed doors of Kentucky’s locker room.
“He didn’t show us none of that after the game,” freshman center Nick Richards said. “He was basically on us the whole time. He said we fought, but we all just made dumb fouls — we’re not thinking as the game is going along. He was yelling at us, basically.”
To be fair, the 18th-ranked — not for long — Wildcats did do some really good and potentially encouraging things against the Gators. Namely, Kentucky (14-5, 4-3 in SEC) held Florida (14-5, 6-1 in SEC) well below its season scoring average (82 ppg) and 3-point percentage (.397).
The visitors were just 6-of-30 shooting from beyond the arc in what was the Wildcats’ best display of perimeter defense all season.
“I thought Kentucky played really hard … defended us at as high a level as any team has defended us,” Gators coach Mike White said. “I was really impressed with the length in person, the closing speed on shooters, the attention to detail. It was pretty suffocating.”
The Wildcats also outrebounded Florida 49-38 and outscored the Gators 38-26 in the paint. Sophomores Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel were terrific again off the bench — a combined 17 points and 10 rebounds in 31 minutes between them — and Richards delivered his best game in weeks with 8 points, 9 boards and 2 blocks in 20 minutes.
Kentucky, which has started five freshmen every game this season, was good enough to build an eight-point lead late in the first half and nearly erase a six-point deficit with 44 seconds to go. Kevin Knox and Wenyen Gabriel hit clutch 3-pointers and both Quade Green and PJ Washington had close-range looks at tying buckets in the final 10 seconds, but both were blocked (fouled?) and ended up on the ground.
“Proud of them. They gave themselves a chance to win,” Calipari said. “You know, we’re OK. We’re OK.”
There he goes talking himself — and Big Blue Nation — into it again. Except, the Wildcats also made just 23 percent of their 3-pointers Saturday and have hit only 5 of 28 in consecutive losses to South Carolina and Florida.
And they coughed it up 16 times Saturday, including four in a row during a 13-3 Gators run to close the first half. That left Kentucky playing catch-up the rest of the way. In the postgame locker room, Calipari did away with most of his happy talk.
“He definitely took some encouraging things from this game, but he’s definitely frustrated,” Gabriel said. “He sees what we can be out there, but we just keep stumbling away from that.”
So, not fine?
“What do you mean, ‘fine’? It’s tough taking two losses like this,” Gabriel continued. “But we’re going to be good. It’s not the end of the world. Basketball has its ups and downs. We’re going to start winning again, and I feel like we’re going to get back on a roll eventually.”