The outcome of Tuesday night's SEC showdown with first-place Florida ceased to matter for Kentucky with about eight minutes left in the second half.
It was at that point in a 69-52 loss to the Gators that the Wildcats' worst nightmare materialized: Nerlens Noel writhed in pain on the floor screaming and clutching his left knee.
Noel sustained the injury when his left knee appeared to buckle as he came down after racing back to block Mike Rosario's attempt at a transition layup. No update on Noel's condition was immediately available, but it certainly wasn't a good sign for Kentucky that the 6-foot-11 freshman didn't put any weight on the leg and had to be helped off the floor by his teammates.
"His leg was wobbly, knee looked dislocated," Florida center Patric Young told the Palm Beach Post. "It was gruesome. I don't want to think about it."
Noel left the arena in a wheelchair and will be taken for X-Rays at a Gainesville hospital. Kentucky coach John Calipari gathered his team in prayer for Noel before addressing reporters after the game.
"I’m physically sick right now for him," Calipari said. "What I'm hoping for is it's not the extreme. I'm hoping it's just a twist."
A season-ending injury to Noel might be a fatal blow to a Kentucky team that depends on his shot-blocking, rebounding and defensive presence.
Noel, the Class of 2012's top-ranked prospect, has lived up to sky-high expectations as a freshman, averaging 10.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game. Though he isn't a polished shooter or back-to-the-basket scorer yet, his skill as an interior defender, rebounder and rim protector made him a candidate to be the No. 1 pick in this June's draft.
It's silly to speculate how the injury will impact Noel's draft stock without knowing the severity, but the potential that millions of dollars were on the line for the freshman only made the sight of his pain harder to watch.
Noel got hurt making a tremendous hustle play in a game that was probably already lost. It would be the cruelest of ironies if a brilliant play turns out to have a disastrous outcome.
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