Scottie Lewis

Andrew Nembhard caught the inbounds pass from Keyontae Johnson on his opponent’s side of the court with just 3.1 seconds left in the regular season.

Nembhard drove the ball past Kentucky defenders and over half court until he was forced to pull up from beyond NBA three-point range as the buzzer sounded. With the crowd on its feet, it bounced up and off the side of the rim on its way to the hardwood.

The home crowd belted a collective “oh” in disappointment as Florida lost its regular-season finale at the O’Connell Center on Saturday to the Kentucky Wildcats 71-70.

The Gators (19-12, 11-7 SEC) couldn’t have asked for a better start to a game where if they won, they’d clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament and get a double bye.

UF started the game on a 7-0 run and never let off the pedal in the first half. Kentucky (25-6, 15-3) coach John Calipari constantly found himself calling a timeout and berating his team after a sequence where the Gators came away with a basket or a loose ball.

It was clear from the beginning that Kentucky missed guard Ashton Hagans from the tip. Not only were the Wildcats without the SEC’s leading passer (6.4 apg), but they were missing one of their best defenders.

Hagans is second in the conference in steals (1.9) and along with guards Immanuel Quickley and Tyrese Maxey, they are considered to be a premiere defensive unit.

“I think those three guards, defensively, I can’t imagine there’s a better defensive backcourt in the country,” Florida coach Mike White said on Friday.

That perimeter defense was on full display the last time these two teams faced off on Feb. 22 where Florida guards Andrew Nembhard, Scottie Lewis and Noah Locke were held to a combined six points.

Without Hagans however, Florida’s offense flourished early. UF went into halftime with a comfortable 40-30 lead behind Lewis’ 13 points as eight different Gators made appearances in the scoring column.

Quickley, who scored 26 points in the last matchup, led the Wildcats with nine points at halftime.

UF eventually opened the lead to as much as 18 points in the second half, but Kentucky wasn’t going quietly into the postseason.

Kentucky stormed back in the game’s final act and took its first lead with 11.6 seconds to go. After a UF turnover, the Gators had to foul forward Nick Richards to give themselves a shot of winning the game. The 6-foot-11 junior missed the free throw with 3.1 seconds to go in the game with UF down 71-70.

That’s when Nembhard went the full distance of the court to hoist the last second Hail Mary. And that’s when UF’s regular season ended in heartbreak.

Lewis finished the game with a career-high 19 points to lead UF. Kentucky was led by Nick Richards with 19 points.

Florida’s Senior Day was spoiled with the loss, but it may have lost more than just the game.

Graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr., who was honored before the game, only played 12 minutes in the loss due to an injury to his left wrist. The initial diagnosis was a sprain, but nothing is official yet, according to White.

UF will miss its second leading scorer with the SEC tournament just days away if it's a significant injury. Florida can clinch the No. 4 seed in the SEC and a double bye if Mississippi State were to lose to Ole Miss later tonight.

White said it will be difficult to move on from such a hard loss, and still sees some problems that have plagued his team all season.

“Championship-level teams can go on a scoring drought and not have a drop off defensively,” White said. “They can make eight straight shots and not have a drop off defensively. My team doesn’t have that, and it starts with me. I haven’t figured out how to get that done with this team.”

 

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