Mike White didn’t look angry or frustrated as he called a timeout nine minutes into Florida’s Feb. 27 contest against Kentucky. After the Wildcats forced a shot clock violation with the Gators down 25-16, White looked exasperated.
However, instead of letting the game slip away or throwing his hands up in despair, White switched his men to a zone defensive scheme and the momentum flipped in an instant. The Gators fought all the way back to a 71-67 win to move to 9-5 in conference, now third in the SEC, and 13-6 overall.
The Gators came out of the gates slowly against Kentucky. After making an early three, Kentucky shot out to a ten-point lead after a little more than nine minutes of play. After a Jan. 9 matchup resulted in a 76-58 Wildcat win, the orange and blue faithful could feel a pervasive sense of deja vu settling in as they watched head coach John Calipari’s defense absolutely suffocate Florida when White called the aforementioned timeout.
Then junior sharpshooter Noah Locke got loose and made a three. Then Scottie Lewis did the same thing. Finally, on a breakaway caused by a Kentucky turnover, Tre Mann threw up a lob and Lewis dunked it home. In less than 90 seconds, Florida went from down double-digits to trailing by only two.
Florida had a ball game.
The rest of the first half was a jockeying match, with Florida taking a late lead before a pair of Kentucky baskets gave the Wildcats a 39-38 lead as both teams went to the locker room. The Gators dominated points in the paint, 20-12, and had eight more field goal attempts, but Kentucky had kept themselves alive by shooting 16-17 from the free throw line.
Mann and Florida big man Colin Castleton came alive in the second half, scoring 17 of UF’s first 21 points after the break between them. Mann had his second 20-point game, scoring 14 on just four shots in the second half emphasized by some clutch late free throws. His 21 points and a team-high 8 rebounds capped off a great week that also saw him record his first collegiate double-double against Auburn on Tuesday. Castleton finished with 14 points and five boards.
Tyree Appleby made some clutch plays late as well, throwing a loose ball off of Kentucky’s Brandon Boston Jr. to give the ball back to the Gators in the final minutes, with the ensuing Tre Mann jump shot giving Florida a four-point lead with just under two minutes to play. Appleby also made a pair of free throws in the final thirty seconds to maintain that same margin, finishing with 11 points and five rebounds and assists each.
Most of Kentucky’s fight came from graduate student Davion Mintz, who scored 21 points despite only shooting 2-9 from three. The Wildcats as a team only went 4-20 from beyond the arc as they were clearly buoyed offensively by 29 free throw attempts