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March 8, 2013

Cats face Gators in do-or-die game at Rupp

It's do or die. It's sink or swim.

Pick your life-or-death cliché and it applies to Kentucky's regular-season finale on Saturday, with No. 11 Florida visiting in what might amount to an NCAA Tournament play-in game for the Wildcats.

It's a "one-game season," UK coach John Calipari said. A win breathes new life into a dying season. A loss might make a Southeastern Conference Tournament title UK's only hope for a postseason rebirth.

"It's kind of like, 'Uh-oh. If I go under one more time I'm gonna drown. I better start swimming,'" Calipari said. "Then all the sudden you start swimming. The car's laying on you, it's on your leg, you gotta lift a 3,000-pound car. It's funny how you figure out how to lift it to get it off your leg so you don't die, so you can get out of there and get help."

Those might seem like awfully serious analogies for a basketball game.

But at Kentucky under Calipari, the NCAA Tournament has been a given. The thought of missing out isn't so far from a figurative death for a pack of Wildcats (20-10, 11-6 SEC) who have disappointed most of the season.

"It is really sink-or-swim now," forward Alex Poythress said. "If you don't play, you're going to drown. You don't want to drown out here, so you got to keep swimming really."

And Kentucky is swimming upstream. The water is cold and the sharks - or the Gators, if you prefer - are circling.

A win against Florida gives the Wildcats a chance at the No. 2 seed in next week's SEC Tournament and guarantees them a top four seed. A loss could drop UK to the No. 5 seed.

And Florida (24-5, 14-3) is the league's best team, still battling for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Make no mistake, the Cats' backs are to the wall.

"Now are you going to fight like heck, play through the ups and downs of a game, or are you gonna die?" Calipari said. "I can't put it any more plainly or bluntly."

The Cats might not be in the best frame of mind for a game with such high stakes. They're coming off a 72-62 loss at Georgia on Thursday night, a game after which Calipari said he had done "a crap job" of coaching this season and guard Archie Goodwin conceded that at this late stage of the season, it "doesn't look like anything's going to change."

But guard Julius Mays, who along with guard Twany Beckham will be honored for Senior Day on Saturday, said a must-win game against a highly-ranked team might actually reduce some stresss.

"We don't have anything to lose," Mays said. "The only thing we've got is to gain. It's either we're in or we're out after this game. We can't go back to any point in this season that we already had, so all we've got is tomorrow."

So maybe these Cats are running out of lives. But maybe there's a chance to pull one last death-defying act.

"There's always time," Poythress said. "There's always time until the fat lady stops singing."

KENTUCKY (20-10, 11-6 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (122-24 in fourth season at Kentucky; 525-162 in 21st season overall)
Last game: Lost to Georgia 72-62
Roster | Stats
No. 11 Florida (24-5, 15-3 SEC)
Coach: Billy Donovan (410-163 in 17th season at Florida; 445-183 in 19th season overall)
Last game: Beat Vanderbilt 66-40
Roster | Stats
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Ryan Harrow So. 6-2/170 10.2 2.8
G Julius Mays Sr. 6-2/192 9.4 3.1
G Archie Goodwin Fr. 6-5/198 14.0 4.5
F Willie Cauley-Stein Fr. 7-0/244 8.5 6.1
F Alex Poythress Fr. 6-7/239 11.7 6.0
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Scottie Wilbekin Jr. 6-2/176 9.1 3.2
G Mike Rosario Sr. 6-3/183 12.6 2.4
G Kenny Boynton Sr. 6-2/190 12.6 3.2
C Patric Young Jr. 6-9/249 10.5 6.3
F Erik Murphy Jr. 6-10/238 12.3 5.0
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky.
TV: CBS (Ian Eagle play by play, Jim Spanarkle analyst)
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst); Sirius/XM 91.
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: Florida by 6

Series Information
Series record: Kentucky leads 93-34
At Athens: Kentucky leads 47-8
Coaches' records: Calipari 8-2 vs. Florida; Donavon 14-22 vs. Kentucky

Last meeting: Florida 69, Kentucky 52, Feb. 12, Gainesville, Fla.
Last month's game is more notable for who the Wildcats lost than what. Forward Nerlens Noel tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the second half of UK's loss, and the school announced the next day that he would be lost for the season. Even before Noel went down, the Gators controlled the game. Five Florida players scored in double figures, led by Scottie Wilbekin's 14 points. Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Mays had 10 each for UK.

Keys to the Game
1. Young Man: Florida's Patric Young had 12 points and 11 rebounds against the Wildcats when the Gators beat them in Gainesville, Fla., last month, but those numbers hardly to justice to his impact. Young had four blocked shots, and four of his rebounds were offensive. Young's rebounding has been meaningful for Florida this season. He averages 6.3 rebounds per game but has 12 total rebounds (five defensive) in the Gators' three SEC losses.

2. Defense Doesn't Rest: Florida's defense poses one of Kentucky's most daunting challenges this season. The Gators have held four opponents to 40 points or less, 12 under 50 points and 21 under 60 points. Florida ranks third in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 53 points per game. The Gators lead the nation in scoring margin, outscoring opponents by an average of 19.6 points per game.

3. What You See Is What Yeguete: Florida got a boost last week with the return of Will Yeguete from a knee injury. Yeguete averages just 5.6 points per game and has only five double-digit scoring games this season, but he provides energy and a defensive lift, guarding multiple positions and playing at the point of the Florida press. The Gators are 20-2 with Yeguete in the lineup and 4-3 without him.

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