After Florida guard Tre Mann salchowed his way to the rim for a soft layup attempt, Kentucky darted down the floor for four free throws following a coach Mike White technical.
The Wildcats assumed a 10-point advantage and ran the Gators off the floor with sharp offense and smothering defense. However, White’s emotion fueled an immediate 8-0 response capped off by an emphatic Scottie Lewis dunk.
Florida kept its foot on the gas pedal and drove out of the Bluegrass State with a tournament-clinching 71-67 victory.
UF’s performance Saturday contrasts with its lifeless 18-point drubbing against the same Kentucky team a month ago and indicates Florida’s greatest area of growth: resilience.
Gator Nation will remember bleak performances last season, including against a mediocre Missouri team and a sub-.500 Ole Miss squad, in which the Gators rolled over and wilted against inferior opposition. Even in this campaign, Florida suffered early-season humiliations against Alabama and Kentucky.
But during an ongoing 7-2 stretch that vaulted the Gators to third in the SEC, Florida rolled with the punches and overcame daunting deficits and opposition. UF trailed by seven at No. 11 West Virginia and Georgia, nine against Ole Miss and 10 last time out against Kentucky.
Guard Tyree Appleby’s floater erased a 15-point Arkansas lead before Florida faltered down the stretch even in a losing effort.
Florida’s resiliency can be credited to Mann, who has operated at a calm and deliberate pace while knocking down a well-guarded step back on the baseline late Saturday to extend UF’s lead.
After an uninspired opening 10 minutes, Mann recalled White’s pregame message to the team. White urged the Gators to “keep the same face” and remain calm when Kentucky went on a big run.
“I feel like the team did a good job at that,” Mann said. “We kept our composure. It led to great stuff.”
The Gators quickly became one of the most balanced teams in the country — they rank 29th in adjusted defensive efficiency and 30th on the offensive end — and look much improved on the defensive end.
White accused his defense of reduced energy and urgency when the Gators struggled on the offensive end earlier in the season. Florida’s recent offensive woes would normally encourage the Gators to down tools on the defensive end. Still, UF held its last three opponents under 70 points and rose more than 20 spots in the defensive efficiency rankings.
The defensive end’s improvements spoke to a more stoic and level-headed team that will bring the same energy in open waters and dire straits.
Florida can continue its ascend up the SEC Standings Wednesday as the Gators take on the slumping No. 24 Missouri Tigers Wednesday.
Contact Declan Walsh firstname.lastname@example.org and contact him on Twitter @declanaw