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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Florida basketball surges late to beat Kentucky

Mann’s 21 points leads Gators past Wildcats

After disappearing acts in close losses against Arkansas and South Carolina, Mann demanded the ball down the stretch Saturday. Photo from UF-Georgia game Feb. 20.
After disappearing acts in close losses against Arkansas and South Carolina, Mann demanded the ball down the stretch Saturday. Photo from UF-Georgia game Feb. 20.

As the game clock ticked inside the final minute, venerated Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari interrupted a stagnant offensive possession with his final time-out

Calipari, the architect of countless buzzer-beaters and NCAA tournament victories, designed a play for his senior “dagger-thrower” Davion Mintz out of the restart. But Florida coach Mike White out coached his counterpart and forced a contested three from forward Oliver Sarr. The senior’s effort clanked off the rim and UF secured the rebound. 

Florida guard Tryee Appleby willed home his first free-throw before a confident swish iced the game for the Gators. Free throws from sophomore Tre Mann wrapped up a 71-67 victory for Florida in Lexington, Kentucky, Saturday evening. 

Kentucky rode guard B.J. Boston to an electric start out of the gate. A three-ball, mid-range jumper and free-throw from the freshman paired with stout Wildcat defense to create a 13-5 lead. 

UF forward Anthony Duruji slammed home a backboard alley-oop from Appleby to bring the Gators within a point, but Kentucky quickly opened a 26-16 advantage behind eight-straight free throws. Florida’s difficulties with fouling are well documented — the Gator defense ranks 291st in free throw rate according to KenPom — and Kentucky took advantage Saturday. 

The Wildcats shot 17 free throws in the first-half and converted 94% of them. 

“We’ve addressed fouling as much as anything this entire year,” White said. “There’s really no excuse other than our discipline has got to be better.”

White made a vital intervention midway through the first as his team trailed by double-digits. The Gators switched to a 3-2 zone and implemented a half-court trap on made baskets. White’s adjustments led Kentucky to attack the basket with hesitancy and bred UK turnovers. 

Guard Scottie Lewis burst to life with a spot-up three before rattling the rim with an alley-oop slam. Kentucky’s lead hovered around four until a dominant sequence from Colin Castleton. 

Castleton found Duruji for a beautiful high-low dish and then scored four points. A brief Gators lead evaporated before halftime, but Florida showed grit to enter the locker room trailing by just one. 

UF’s perimeter shooting enjoyed a first-half renaissance, which helped the Gators erase the early deficit. They entered Saturday shooting 27% from three since the West Virginia game, but were a much-improved 6-12 from deep at the break.

Kentucky’s remained perplexed by Florida’s zone defense and shot a putrid 33% from the field. A normally sure-handed Florida team failed to capitalize due to ten second-half turnovers. 

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The two teams traded blows — neither lead by more than five during the second half — and a Castleton slam tied the game at 59 with just over six minutes to play. 

“Anytime you can beat a high level team on the road there’s a lot to learn from that, win or lose,” White said. But in a close game where it’s possession by possession, maybe we’ll be able to take a little more from it.”

After disappearing acts in close losses against Arkansas and South Carolina, Mann demanded the ball down the stretch Saturday. The First-Team All-SEC contender probed around the left corner, stepped back and drained a clutch shot to give the Gators a four-point cushion. 

“The shot late was huge and for him to convert at the line late was big,” White said. “He plays at such a good tempo and he’s got such a good pace to his game.”

A Kentucky layup and two free throws down the stretch make things interesting, but Mann’s free throws guaranteed a crucial victory that moves Florida into third place in the SEC standings. 

Florida will return to the O’Connell Center Wednesday against Missouri after a two-game road trip. Tip-off is at 6:30 p.m. and the action will stream on the SEC Network. 

Contact Declan Walsh at dwalsh@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @declanaw

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