Saturday’s regular-season finale carried extra emotional weight before the opening tip was even tossed in the air. Seven Florida seniors were honored during a pre-game Senior Day ceremony.
Among them, Keyontae Johnson.
The senior hadn’t appeared in a game since Dec. 12, 2020, but started Saturday.
Castleton controlled the tip back to Johnson, as the crowd erupted. Head coach Mike White called everyone to rise to their feet and celebrate the career of the Gators’ heart.
“This program basically saved my life,” Johnson said.
As Duruji checked into the game, Johnson kissed the midcourt logo before returning to the bench, once again becoming “Coach Key.”
Florida (19-12, 9-9) ended the regular season on a sour note, falling to No. 7 Kentucky (25-6, 14-4) 71-63 Saturday. Castleton’s ninth double-double of the season (23 points and 11 rebounds) wasn’t enough to overcome the juggernaut Wildcats.
“I thought we were too emotional,” White said. “I thought we got pouty at times after giving up baskets.”
All the storylines favored the Gators, but Kentucky wasn’t going to let that stagger its game. The Wildcats roared out to a 7-0 lead in the opening 1:11.
Florida scrapped back into the contest, drawing as close as 11-8. That would end up being UF’s smallest deficit the remainder of the game. The Wildcats exploded on a 19-8 run over the next seven minutes, turning Gator makes into fastbreak opportunities.
Kentucky’s speed and aggression gassed the Florida defense.
In the halfcourt, UK forward Oscar Thsiebwe, the nation's leading rebounder, was giving the Gators flashbacks to their matchup in Rupp Arena Feb. 12, when he pummeled UF with 27 points and 19 rebounds.
With a dunk at the 2:22 mark, Thsiebwe became the first player for either squad to enter double-figure scoring, claiming his 25th double-double of the season in the process. The accomplishment cenents the junior in the record books; no SEC player has recorded 25 double-doubles in a single season over the last 25 years.
“A couple of our guys going with one hand,” White said. “Oscar is going up there with two.”
The Gators went on a three-minute 10-0 run to dwindle Kentucky’s lead to single-digits, 32-26. Retaliation from the Wildcats quickly followed. Florida went without a field goal over the final two minutes of the half and retreated to its locker room trailing 38-26. The frontcourt duo of Castleton and Duruji combined for all but eight of UF’s first-half points.
Much to the white-out O’Dome crowd’s liking, the Gators came out of the half revitalized.
Castleton wasted no time getting the energy up with a dunk on Florida’s first possession. Five quick points forced Kentucky head coach John Calipari to burn a timeout.
Thsiebwe took his play to another level out of the stoppage.
The 6-foot-9-inch forward scored all 11 of Kentucky’s points to open the second half. He was single handedly bringing down a UK onslaught. The first Wildcat other than No. 34 to score a basket in the second half was guard Davion Mintz at the 13:42 mark.
As the Gators threw everything they had at Thsiebwe, other Kentucky players began to step up. UK guard Shavir Wheeler broke into double-figure scoring with six points on three-consecutive possessions.
White’s frustration continued to build throughout the second half, a presumably missed travel call on the Wildcats got the coach off the bench. He seemed bound to explode when the referees cut off a Florida fastbreak to signal a UK shot-clock violation.
With under a minute to play, Florida needed a miracle.
Appleby sprinted down the lane to cut Kentucky’s lead to six. On the ensuing inbound UK turned the ball over. Suddenly, the Gators were alive.
White drew up a play that resulted in an open look for Fleming beyond the arc. The shot bricked off the front rim and fell into the hands of Kentucky guard Tyty Washington Jr.
Florida played the foul game while the clock neared all zeros as chants of “go big blue’ crescendoed from visiting fans who made the trip to Gainesville.
“I’ll remember the ‘L’” White said. “I’ll also remember the opportunity to celebrate these guys.”
The loss puts added pressure on next week’s SEC Tournament in Tampa, Florida. Action from Amalie Arena begins Wednesday, and the Gators will hope to string together some wins to get on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Contact Joseph Henry at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Josephhenry2424.
Joseph Henry is a fourth-year sports journalism major and is the Alligator's sports editor. He previously worked as senior news director, assistant sports editor, men's basketball beat reporter, volleyball beat reporter and golf beat reporter. He enjoys sitting down to watch a movie as often as possible, collecting vinyl and drinking Dr. Pepper.