Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In losing the previous seven of eight games to powerful Kentucky, the Florida Gators were often at a disadvantage when it came to that great equalizer known as talent.
And once again, the slew of NBA scouts at the O'Connell Center Tuesday would have declared the visiting Wildcats, without question, more blessed off the bounce than the Gators.
But the sum of Florida's parts was all that mattered.
Junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin led a quintet of teammates into double figures, scoring a game-high 14 points and dishing eight assists to lead seventh-ranked UF to a 69-52 thumping of 25th-ranked and defending NCAA champion Kentucky before a bombastic sellout crowd of 12,484.
How's this for balance? After Wilbekin's 14, junior center Patric Young, senior guard Mike Rosario and backup junior forward Casey Prather had 12 points, followed by Erik Murphy with 10, as UF shot 49 percent against a defense that was allowing just 37.8 for the season.
For the Gators (20-3, 10-1), the victory margin matched the largest against the Wildcats (17-7, 8-3) of Coach Billy Donovan's 17 seasons (17 in the 2005 SEC Championship game). The win gave Donovan his 15th straight 20-win campaign, but more importantly padded UF's lead in the Southeastern Conference standings to two games over UK.
"We're trying to win a championship here," Young said.
They'll have a great shot at doing that if Young shows up like he did against 6-foot-10 center Nerlens Noel before Kentucky's shot-blocking big man left the game with eight minutes to play after suffering what appeared to be a severe knee injury. Noel, who yelled and grimaced in pain as he rolled on the floor, was carried off the court and taken to the hospital after the game.
"I didn't see much," UK coach John Calipari said of Noel's injury. "They said it looked ugly."
Even before Noel went down, though, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Young was the best post player on the floor, scoring his dozen on 5-for-7 shooting, to go with 11 rebounds and four blocked shots in 24 inspired minutes.
"They have a bunch of great freshmen players, but we have a bunch of a juniors and seniors," Young said after his sixth double-double of the season. "We've been through the SEC. We've been through the NCAA Tournament. We've been together through so much. I'm not saying we're entitled to anything, it's just we have experience and we're expected to perform ... and expect ourselves to perform."
The veteran thread that runs through the Gators is helping them cope with the loss of junior forward Will Yeguete, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery Friday and is expected to miss the rest of the regular season.
Minus Yeguete, UF figured to do a replacement-by-committee -- and did so in Saturday's win over Mississippi State -- but against the Wildcats it was junior Casey Prather providing the jolt off the bench.
"He was amazing," Wilbekin said.
Prather equaled his season-high with those 12 points, making six of eight shots, but also grabbed three rebounds, had two assists, two blocks, took three charges and thew down the slam-dunk of the night during a 16-4 run late in the first half that helped the Gators build a 16-point lead before the break.
"I was just trying to give the team a big energy boost," Prather said.
He did it when UF opted to go small -- four guards and the 6-foot-6 Prather in the post -- and spread the floor and drove at the Wildcats after Noel went to the bench with two fouls.
The results were some points in the paint (10 in the first half), but some kick-out 3-pointers also. UF went 5-for-7 from the arc in taking a 38-25 lead into the locker room, at one time making three straight 3s -- first Wilbekin, then Mike Rosario, then Kenny Boynton -- over a 1:18 span.
"We said, 'Let's guard the 3," and we did," Calipari said. "Then all of a sudden, it's a 3, it's a 3, it's a 3. ... This was sort of a game that exposed us physically."
It didn't start that way. Wilbekin actually looked a little gun shy about going inside early after seeing Noel do his giant praying mantis thing.
"A couple times we went in too tentatively, but then started to figured him out a little bit," Donovan said. "We were pretty well-balanced. Sometimes we dumped into the post, we drove it, we kicked it and did some things to eliminate the shot-blocking."
Florida scored seven of the first eight points to open the second half to go up 19 points with 15:57 to go. Kentucky managed to whittle the margin to 12, but that's when Noel, chasing down Rosario on a fast break, jumped to block the UF guard's shot, slammed into the basketball standard and collapsed to the floor in pain.
"I admire the way he plays. I admire his energy," Donovan said of Noel. "When you think about it, the injury came from a hustle play. That kind of embodies the way he plays."
With Noel out, the Gators scored three straight baskets by taking the ball right to the rim and went to close out another double-digit SEC victory.
The 10th in 10, actually.
"We've been able to do it by collectively together on the floor," Donovan said.
And with veteran guys that are pretty talented too.