Billy Donovan has made one desperate halftime plea after another during what turned into the best regular season in Florida history. While the Gators have won, more often than not, they have seemed to need an emphatic adjustment after 20 minutes. Donovan has seen his team go into the locker room tied or trailing seven times during Southeastern Conference play.
Saturday, No. 1 Florida led 49-28. The O'Connell Center was packed full of fans with suddenly light wallets and they were loud. Everything was going right. Back to the drawing board.
"We anticipated they would fight back," Casey Prather said. "[Donovan] said it would be a dogfight. We knew they were a good team and they had a run in them. We just had to be ready to go."
Unsurprisingly, Donovan was right. Youthful No. 25 Kentucky came out for the second half with a renewed confidence. The Wildcats spread the floor and derailed the Gators, forcing a five-minute, 37-second UF scoring drought that felt all too similar to Elite Eights past. Kentucky used it to help build a 15-0 run and shrink the gap to six points.
This Florida team is different from those in the past.
"Those guys answered the bell," Donovan said. "They made some plays. It was good because in the huddle, while Kentucky is in the middle of its run, the right things were being said. There was a focus in their eyes of, 'Next play, we'll be fine. Let's get this stop. Let's have a good possession here' The right things were being said in terms of their communication with each other."
Scottie Wilbekin hit a 3-point shot to stifle the Wildcats' momentum. Everyone else followed. Florida outscored Kentucky 29-16 from then until it removed its seniors from the game to hugs, handshakes and a thunderous ovation. An eventual 84-65 victory was in hand.
-- HILL HIJACKS SENIOR DAY --
Scottie Wilbekin was honored before his final home game and will likely be honored again when it's time for the Southeastern Conference to name its player of the year. His four-year UF career has been a series of overcoming both natural and self-inflicted limitations.
Fittingly, his senior day was a representation of that, but it also served as a flash preview of the future.
After Wilbekin picked up his second foul less than 10 minutes into the game, freshman point guard Kasey Hill was brought in. Throughout this season, Florida fans have wondered quietly about the future of a team with four seniors. Hill helped silence some concerns.
"I thought it was Kasey Hill's best game by far that he's had here," Donovan said. "He was aggressive, he was physical, he was tough. … Scottie goes out with two fouls and we're up by seven at that point. Kasey ran our team and allowed me to keep Scottie on the bench without putting him in harm's way of getting his third."
Hill didn't put up giant numbers - eight points, seven assists - during his 21 minutes, but he confidently ran Florida's offense during its biggest stretch of the game. The Gators outscored the Wildcats 29-15 with Wilbekin on the bench for the last 10 minutes and 18 seconds of the first half.
-- ETC. --
- Florida football coach Will Muschamp was in attendance at a Gators basketball game for the first time this season. UF is hosting three Rivals100 football recruits this weekend.
- Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith's slump is entirely buried in the past at this point. Finney-Smith was 3 of 4 from beyond the arc against Kentucky and had arguably the Gators' most complete game. He finished with 11 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals.
- The Gators shot more free throws (29-25) than the Wildcats despite the fact Kentucky came in attempting 110 more free throws on the season than any other SEC team. UK had shot 215 more free throws than Florida this season.