LEXINGTON, Ky. – Two or three times a year, Rupp Arena swells to its full size and becomes the most intimidating and oppressive basketball venue in America.
Usually those memorably oppressive times are reserved for visits from Kentucky rivals like Louisville and Florida, and Saturday was one of those nights. ESPN was in town and so were the Gators, sporting a No. 3 national ranking, a zero in the loss column in Southeastern Conference play, and a plump bull's-eye.
Kentucky needed this game to polish its NCAA tournament résumé, and to stay in the SEC race. So 24,425 fans rose to the occasion and raised the roof, urging the Wildcats to win for the 82nd time in John Calipari's 84 home games as coach.
But by game's end, the noise and energy had been sucked out of the huge building. Kentucky sank, and Rupp shrank, and Florida celebrated a 69-59 victory. The quartet of seniors who had listened to one audio assault after another in their three previous (winless) trips here reveled in the sound they heard at the end.
Silence was golden and the Gators were giddy after finally winning here for the first time in seven years. The last Billy Donovan team to render Rupp silent was the 2007 national champions. Even the very good Florida teams of recent years could never enjoy a quiet, victorious moment.
"It was eerie," center Patric Young said. "All my three years before this, I couldn't hear myself think. Seeing those fans walk out of the arena with a minute left was amazing."
Here's what was really amazing: The Gators scored at least one point in their last 13 possessions of the game – a staggering 2.38 points per possession over the final 10 minutes and 41 seconds. Compare that with a team that went scoreless in the last 7 ½ minutes in Rupp last year, blowing a seven-point lead and losing by four and hearing the roars of the home crowd yet again.
This is a fully mature team, which underscores the bluntly obvious storyline from this game: experienced players are still worth something in a sport trending ever younger. Florida has the experience, Kentucky has the draft picks. Florida's senior veterans outplayed Kentucky's freshman talent down the stretch, outscoring the Wildcats 31-14 in the last 11 minutes.
No amount of fan noise could offset the difference in late-game execution and crunch-time poise.
"They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch," Calipari said.
The experienced team zeroed in on winning plays to a remarkable degree in the second half. A Florida team that appeared cowed by Kentucky's length in the first half stopped settling for perimeter shots and started attacking the paint. The Gators shot 33 percent in the first 20 minutes, launching nine 3-pointers and making just one. After intermission they took just four 3-pointers, and not coincidentally shot 60 percent.
Point guard Scottie Wilbekin dominated the game late, driving with aplomb and making 11 of 12 free throws and not much resembling the guy who unraveled a bit late in Rupp last year. Kentucky freshman Andrew Harrison played well – but couldn't hang with Wilbekin late.
"He got the ball to the guys that needed it," Calipari said. "He got fouled when he needed to get fouled. He controlled the game. He went fast when he wanted to. He pulled it back when he wanted to."
On the inside, Florida's Young got three hooks shots to fall over the taller Wildcats. The pressure of the situation led to sharper focus and execution, not a loss of composure.
"It showed what we already know," Wilbekin said. "We're a tough team and can win in tough environments."
Here's what the Gators didn't know when they were the age of Kentucky's hot shots: basketball is harder than they thought it was. After so many years of tail-kissing and perspective-warping praise from people who really didn't know what they were talking about, it was a shock to arrive on a college campus and find out how much they still had to learn.
Young is a 6-foot-9 post player with biceps for days. Given the physique and growing up in Florida, he was often compared to Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard.
He's not Dwight Howard.
"I was listening to people say who I should be," Young acknowledged. "People saying I should do this, I should do that. I needed to minimize that circle of people around me.
"You have this false reality in your mind. 'I'm going to do this, I'm going to do that.' You get hit with the reality, 'Wow, I'm not as good as I thought I was.' "
Some of Kentucky's flotilla of McDonald's All-Americans may be experiencing that reality right now. Calipari sells the NBA in recruiting, and particularly his express lane to the draft. It has been a smashingly successful approach – but sometimes it is a false reality for young players.
If the current group of star recruits were as good as everyone in the state – including their coach – thought they were, this team would be living up to its preseason No. 1 billing. Instead the Wildcats have lost six times, and half of those losses – Baylor, LSU, Arkansas – are to teams that would be ticketed for the NIT if the season ended today.
Losing to Florida is not a bad loss. But it does reinforce the fact that the Wildcats are well short of national title contention – and they're running out of time to close the gap between good and great.
As Calipari still leans on the crutch of youth in explaining his team's laborious season, here are two uncomfortable truths for the coach to consider: he put together the roster, not anyone else; and the most veteran member of the team had the biggest loss of composure Saturday night.
That would be Cal himself.
With 8:14 left and Kentucky up one, official Michael Stephens hit Calipari with a technical foul. He'd been jawing at the officials most of the night, and the men in stripes had finally heard enough.
After Wilbekin made the two foul shots, Florida never trailed again. The score from that point on was Florida 22, Kentucky 11.
When the Gators' quartet of seniors were asked on the podium whether the T swung the game, nobody responded. Finally Prather piped up.
"He gave us two free points," Prather said, grinning.
To the victors belong the smiles. And the deliciously rare sound of Rupp Arena silence.
- Sports & Recreation
- John Calipari