The motivation and emotion were on Florida’s side. Kentucky, though, played better basketball.
The Gators fell to the No. 22 Wildcats 88-79 Tuesday night on Florida’s senior night and the last game in the O’Connell Center before it undergoes major renovation. The Gators were able to keep up with Kentucky early and into halftime, but Florida’s shooting woes proved insurmountable, as they have all season.
The Gators’ NCAA Tournament hopes are now all but dead. UF (17-13, 8-9 Southeastern Conference) has lost four straight games and has given up at least 87 points in its last three contests.
“They knew our backs were against the wall,” Florida coach Mike White said. “We’ve lost too much at home, the O’Dome scenario, the way that you want to send out your seniors … I thought we played really hard, just didn’t play well enough. Kentucky was just better.”
John Egbunu’s career-high 27 points on 12-of-15 shooting, following a 22-point performance at LSU on Saturday, led Florida’s offense, but the redshirt sophomore couldn’t do it alone. The rest of the Gators shot 17-of-53 from the field and 5-of-18 from three-point range.
“We had a chance. We scored 79 points, that’s a lot of points for us, we just got to find a way to get stops,” redshirt senior Dorian Finney-Smith said after his final game in the O’Connell Center. “We shot more free throws than them, we did a great job of attacking the glass, we’ve just got to finish. … I missed the dunk, missing floaters. They were the better team tonight.”
Finney-Smith had 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in his home finale. Freshman KeVaughn Allen added 15 points and five rebounds.
Kentucky (22-8, 12-5 SEC) shot 52.7 percent from the field and 70 percent from beyond the arc, but the damage Florida inflicted on itself at the free-throw line may have hurt the Gators the most. UF left 21 points at the charity stripe and shot 16-of-37 from the line. The Wildcats converted 23-of-32 free throws, with all attempts coming in the second half.
After Florida fought back at the end of the first half to crawl back to within four at halftime, Kentucky came out firing in the second half and built up a 10-point lead with a Tyler Ulis three at the 14:07 mark. The Wildcats never looked back.
Jamal Murray led Kentucky with 21 points and four made three-pointers to go along with eight rebounds and four assists. Ulis scored 19, Isaiah Briscoe added 13 and Alex Poythress registered a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. The Wildcats lost the turnover battle 13-5, but outrebounded the Gators 45-35 and scored 13 second-chance points.
Florida’s postseason hopes now hang in the balance. The Gators have one final regular-season game on Saturday at Missouri before heading to Nashville for the SEC Tournament. Anything beyond that is a question mark.
“It’s tough … but this is where we at,” Egbunu said. “We’ve just got to continue to fight and continue to battle. … We just got to learn from this game, take the positives out of this game and continue to build from it.”