- Saturday, February 4 2006 -
Kentucky - 80 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Unranked]
Florida - 95 (Head Coach: Billy Donovan) - [Ranked 8th by AP and 7th by ESPN/USA Today]
Halftime Score: Kentucky 41, Florida 39
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Game Writeup - Written by Matt May; Courtesy of The Cats Pause, (All Rights Reserved)
Gator Bait: UK blown out in 2nd half
GAINESVILLE, Fla. Ð Joakim Noah looked toward the Rowdy Reptiles student section and sang along with the rap song blaring across the O'Connell Center speakers. Al Horford pounded his chest and bobbed his head. Six minutes remained in a critical Southeastern Conference showdown and yet the outcome had long since been decided.
The Gators had every reason to celebrate, having raced past UK for a 95-80 victory in front of a record crowd of 12,609 delirious fans. The triumph was the third straight for Florida over UK, a program that had owned the series for years, and left the Cats grasping at straws and well behind the eight ball in the conference race.
"With an explosive team like Florida, you have to play every second and every possession all out," UK coach Tubby Smith said. "I wasn't surprised (at the outcome) because I've seen it before."
The surprise came in how quickly it happened. The Cats played arguably their best half of basketball this season in the first 20 minutes, staring an incredible atmosphere dead in the eye and standing firm. UK didn't blink, playing textbook basketball en route to a 41-39 advantage at the break. Executing nearly perfectly on offense, the Cats shot 50 percent on the strength of 12 combined assists from Patrick Sparks (7) and Randolph Morris (5).
Although Florida shot nearly 54 percent itself, the Cats appeared poised to end the Gators' 19-game home winning streak and earn the validation they had been seeking since following a three-game losing streak with five straight wins.
"I didn't think we did a good enough job defending (UK) in the first half," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "We got beat too much off the dribble and in transition. It opened up too many opportunities for them."
Smith is fond of telling his team that the most insignificant score in college basketball is the halftime score and his hypothesis proved true. UK came out of the gate quickly in the second half, scoring four straight points to push its lead to a game-high six points, but that was the end of anything positive for the Cats.
Florida responded with a blindingly quick 18-1 run, spurred by a combination of poor decisions on UK's part and the brilliance of point guard Taurean Green and Noah. Before the Cats knew what hit them, Green had stuck two three-pointers, buried another jumper and driven to the hoop, while Noah had a dunk and a lay-up as the UK lead turned into a 57-46 Gators' edge.
"We got away from what was so effective," Morris said. "We let it get away. We didn't play a lick of defense. That's how it got away. When you play a team that can score in bunches it can get away from you really quick."
UK found out just how dangerous Florida's roster of gazelles can move. Green repeatedly carved the Cats Ð and purported superior defensive guard Rajon Rondo Ð up throughout the game on his way to a career-high 29 points and nine assists. The Gators ran a high screen-and-roll offense to perfection with Green either scoring himself or dishing to the Gators' big men for easy points at the rim.
"Taurean Green was just special," Smith said.
As Green continued to breakdown the Cats' defense, Florida stuck with the same offensive set.
"They saw our weakness and took advantage of it," UK sophomore guard Joe Crawford said. "They saw we couldn't guard the screen on the ball. We didn't play defensive, that's what it came down to."
Just as shocking as UK's complete collapse on defense was its return to the one-on-one offensive play that crippled the Cats earlier this season. After posting 12 assists in the first half, UK had only three in the second half against nine turnovers. Time and again, UK took the first moderately open shot and went completely away from the ball movement that had Florida scrambling in the first half.
"We got down and got away from our game," Crawford, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds, said. "Once we got down five, we acted like it was 15. We had the momentum and made a mistake and they took it over. We had the game and we lost it.
"We didn't stay calm or poised. People panicked and tried to take the game over by themselves."
The result was another failed opportunity for the Cats to prove they are for real. Instead, Florida's sophomore class of Noah, Green, Al Horford and Corey Brewer bolstered their claim to being the league's best young corps of players with a combined 82 points, 27 rebounds and 16 assists.
"It was just one of those nights where we didn't put together two halves again," Smith said. "We didn't have an answer. They had another gear and turned it up."
In the end, Florida was dancing and UK was sulking. Again.
Joe Crawford grabs the ball from Florida's Al Horford as Sheray Thomas looks on
Rajon Rondo grabs a rebound in front of Joakim Noah
Game MVP Taurean Green speaks with ESPN's Erin Andrews