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Friday February 14, 2014Young's Play Sets Bar for Rest of Season as Gators Head to Kentucky

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When you saw it, you couldn’t believe it, right?

Florida center Patric Young, all 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, making like Ryan Lochte blasting out of the starting blocks Tuesday night at Tennessee. He got horizontal for a loose ball with 90 seconds to go and the Gators clinging to a two-possession lead at a place where they’d won just once the past eight years.

Young was 10 feet away away from the ball when he took a step and launched his big body, knifing through two Volunteers to grab the ball off the floor and pass it to teammate Kasey Hill before his momentum spun Young out of bounds.

The UF bench went berserk, as the play bought the Gators another possession and allowed them to run nearly 40 more seconds off the clock before netting a couple more free throws.

"My Twitter blew up when that happened," Young said.

That's not all that blew up. So did UF's standard of expectation, both internal and external, for hard play.

ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes watched in awe from courtside, dubbing the sequence “big-boy senior effort,” as replay angles accentuated the passion of a player who just wanted to make a play more than two guys on the other team who happened to be closer to the ball.

Said Dykes: “That’s one you show it on the film tomorrow and tell your guys, ‘This is why we have a chance to win the whole thing.’ ”

Not if you’re Billy Donovan, you don’t.

Not if you’re a coach whose daily mantra focuses on “living in the moment” and emphasizes “the process” of what it takes to navigate a long college basketball season. Winning the whole thing hasn’t even come up. Winning the next game is what Donovan talks about.

Donovan, no doubt, showed his team Young’s play. Over and over and over. How could he not? How can you talk about selling out, bringing maximum effort every possession and preach of playing with a sense of desperation and not use Young’s play as the gold standard?

But Donovan and his staff know that very same sequence will be replayed again and again and again by every opponent the third-ranked Gators (22-2, 11-0) will face the rest of the season, starting with No. 14 Kentucky (19-5, 9-2), which is next up on the slate Saturday night at sold-out/no-doubt insane Rupp Arena.

“It was one of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen to help a team go on and win a game,” UF assistant coach John Pelphrey said. “But it also set the bar as far as expectation and effort -- and not only for us. Because other teams will see the kind of effort that needs to exerted to play the Gators, that just means we have to bring even more now.”

You can only imagine the type of effort UF will have to summon to overcome all the elements at Rupp. That list begins with a hungry young squad of five freshmen starters that Donovan called Friday “the most talented” team in the country.  Those kids will be laying in wait for a chance to flex their muscles against the reigning league champion in a building where the Wildcats are a mind-boggling 82-2 in Coach John Calipari’s five seasons.

And, yes, Calipari showed his players Young’s play. The conversation he had with them went something like this:

“What are you willing to do to win a game?” Calipari told UK media Friday. “I know what he’s willing to do.”

The Gators must have that willingness for this game. The goal, in fact, is to have it for every game.

Young and the rest of UF’s four-man senior class have together won 106 games, but they’ve never beaten Kentucky on the road -- only three Donovan teams have in 17 trips -- and that includes last year’s late-game meltdown when the Gators led by seven points with 7 1/2 minutes to play and did not score again in a confounding, frustrating 61-57 loss.

That game will be topical in the considerable run-up, what with ESPN’s “College GameDay” show on UK’s campus all day Saturday. So will others in the series, others this season. So will the fact the Gators have won 16 straight, equaling the school record set by the 2007 team that went on to win a second straight national championship. UF has been hearing this week of how its 11 consecutive wins to start an SEC campaign also has tied that incomparable ’07 bunch.

The Gators have heard a lot about how good they are the last few days.

“And none of it matters,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We know its a big game, but all we can do is control our focus on what we need to do, know the scouting report and lock in on what’s going on between the lines. We can’t listen to the hype. It’s a big game for them. It’s a big game for us. We just have to go play.”

That means guys like Dorian Finney-Smith, Kasey Hill and Chris Walker not getting starstruck by the power of Rupp and those jerseys in the rafters; not to mention the ones attached the big guys on the end of the floor.

“It’s going to be tough, but it’s also going to be fun,” said Finney-Smith, the sophomore who transferred from Virginia Tech, who had a chance to play at Duke and North Carolina during his ACC days. “Places like that, the fans always have some interesting things to say.”

Added Hill: “I’m on a team full of seniors, so I’m just going to watch and listen to them, and follow their lead. We know it’s a big game, but we’re treating every game like a big game because it’s our next one. We’re in for a battle, but we’re going there to try and win.”

That was the mentality in Knoxville, where some of the best teams in UF history (including those two NCAA championship squads) did not win. The Gators persevered for one of the best road victories in several seasons.

Pelphrey was not at Tuesday night’s game. He stayed back in Gainesville to be with his wife, Tracy, who underwent hip revision surgery the day before. Since Pelphrey was home, he used the time to attend his son’s baseball game at P.K. Yonge High, which also was hosting a girls regional basketball playoff that his daughter was playing in.

With both his kids in action, Pelphrey bounced back and forth, inside and outside, all the while trying to watch the Gators on his cell phone. It was cold that night.

The app froze.

On the way home, he listened to the game on the radio and busted into his house just in time to see Young sprawling across Thompson-Boling Arena.

“I was so proud of Pat,” he said. “I was proud of all of them.”

When the team met Thursday, Pelphrey echoed those thoughts. And a couple more.

“It was a great play,” he told the Gators. “But you know what? You’re supposed to give that type of effort. That’s the lesson learned here. Great plays aren’t necessarily some individual one-on-one, dribble 26 times and hit a shot. Great plays are when you’re in the moment, a lot of stuff is on the line and you’re able to have clarity of thought and perform.”

Florida not only has shown it can do that, the Gators have set an unbelievable bar on the desire meter.

That’s the kind of self-inflicted wound their coaches can live with. 

No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky  

When: Saturday, 9 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky. 
Records: Florida 22-2 (11-0); Kentucky 19-5 (9-2)
TV: ESPN (w/Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale and Shannon Spake)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Bill Koss) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Kentucky notes


History: The premier programs in the Southeastern Conference square off for the first of two meetings this season. Kentucky holds a commanding 94-34 edge in the series, including an 8-48 mark in Lexington. Under Coach Billy Donovan, UF is 14-24 vs. UK and just 3-14 on the road. The Gators have not won at Rupp Arena since the 2007 season. In the last meeting between the two teams, UF led by seven with 7:36 to go play, but failed to score a point the rest of the game and lost 61-57 in the 2013 regular season finale last March 9.

Pre-game storyline: Florida, having equaled its finest start in SEC play in school history, has a two-game lead over second-place Kentucky in the conference standings. The Wildcats can cut that margin in half with a win, with a rematch between the two teams set for March 8 at Gainesville. The Gators have equaled their best 24-game start and best 11-game SEC start, but can break both those by winning for the first time at Rupp in seven years.

About the Gators: They’ve won 16 straight, including a 5-0 record on the road in SEC play. ... UF rates as the SEC’s best in scoring defense (57.9 ppg) and defensive field-goal percentage (.393), but the Gators continue to suffer prolonged scoring droughts. Against Tennessee, UF went eight minutes without a field goal (netting just a pair of free throws) while struggling against the Vols 1-3-1 late in the second half. The Gators’ defense kept them in the game, as UT became the eighth opponent in the last nine games that failed to score 60 points. Still, a similar drought against Kentucky figures to be more costly. ... Senior forward Casey Prather (15.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) remains the teams’s top scorer overall, but is third in that category in SEC play at 12.4 points per game. Prather still tops UF in field-goal percentage at .612. ... Scottie Wilbekin (team-leading 13.9 ppg in SEC) had maybe the greatest “bad” statistical game in the win at Knoxville. He shot 35 percent from the floor (6-17), just 17 percent from 3-point range (1-6), yet had utter command of the Gators on both sides of the floor, also finishing with six assists, four steals and zero turnovers. ... Backup forward/center Dorian Finney-Smith (9.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg) is shooting just 29.6 percent over his last seven games, with only one field goal in each of the last three games.

About the Wildcats: They’ve won four straight and seven of the last eight, with the lone loss coming last month at LSU. ... UK ranks second in the league in scoring (78.8) and first in field-goal percentage (.468), thanks in great part to one of the biggest front lines in the nation. The Wildcats aren’t a great 3-point shooting team (.322), but with their size (yes, even their guards are big) they defend the line magnificently (.297) and allow just five (that’s best in the SEC) per game. ... The Cats, of course, start five freshmen, the core of a signing class many rated as the best in college basketball history. ... Power forward Julius Randle nearly averages a double-double (15.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg), but at 6-9 he’s nowhere near the biggest Cat on the team. UK also has 7-foot, 265-pound center Dakari Johnson (4.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and 7-0 Willie Cauley-Stein (7.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg) off the bench. ... Kentucky will start three guards, two-thirds of them the Harrison twins; Aaron (13.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg) and point guard Andrew (11 ppg, 3.5 apg). James Young (14.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg) is a long swingman and though not the team’s best 3-point shooter, percentage-wise, he can get streaky good. ... UK coach John Calipari is 9-2 against the Gators since arriving for the 2009-10 season.

Key numbers:

* .000 - Finney-Smith from 3-point range over the last four games (0-for-11).

* 1.000 - Combined 3-point field-goal percentage by Prather, Will Yeguete and backup DeVon Walker in Tuesday’s win at Tennessee, who went a collective 4-for-4 from the arc against the Volunteers. They went into the game with a combined 12 treys in the previous 23 games.  

* 22 - Consecutive home wins for Kentucky. That’s the fifth-longest active home winning streak in the nation, behind Stephen F. Austin (30), Florida and Duke (29), followed by Gonzaga (23).

* 68 - How many more assists than turnovers the point guard combination of Wilbekin and freshman Kasey Hill have. Their 135-to-67 ratio is almost exactly 2-to-1.

* 97.6 - Kentucky’s winning percentage at Rupp Arena in five seasons under Calipari. Somewhere in that 82-2 record are losses coming against Baylor and Texas A&M last season.

Watch for it: Man defense by Kentucky. And almost exclusive man defense. The Wildcats have played it 96 percent of their possessions in SEC play. And they will switch at all five spots, which means there will be a mismatches and the Gators need to recognize and capitalize on them in the halfcourt offense.


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