Florida basketball is coming off a signature win at the Kentucky Wildcats inside Rupp Arena on Wednesday, escaping with a 94-91 overtime victory to enact revenge for the Southeastern Conference loss in Gainesville at the start of January.
It was the first time the Gators beat a top-10-ranked team on the road since 2003 when Billy Donovan’s boys upset the Mississippi State Bulldogs in Starkville. It was also a much-needed triumph away from the O’Connell Center as Todd Golden’s gang has struggled away from home this season.
Ahead of the next matchup with the Texas A&M Aggies, UF’s head coach spoke with the media looking back on the big win while also looking ahead to the next opponent. Here is what he had to offer.
Assessing the win over Kentucky
What I meant to say was our whole team coming together at the right time. We just have a lot of new guys, but we’re getting into the third month of the season and, finally, over the course of SEC play have had everybody healthy and upright, so I think it’s just a little bit of that; guys coming together and being comfortable.
It was a little harder earlier in the year with (Zyon Pullin) out, Micah out, Riley out a little bit. We had some guys in and out of the lineup, so just the continuity of guys being out there have allowed us to get better over the course of the season.
Is Florida on track with his projections for the team?
I feel like we’re playing better together, trusting each other better, relying on each other better. We’re not out there – knock on wood – trying to make a lot of hero plays. We’re keeping it simple and if there’s an advantage or disadvantage let the next guy play. I thought our guys were really poised Wednesday that way, just keeping it simple.
You don’t get out of a game like that with only nine turnovers – and we had three of them in the first five minutes of the game that we’re really sloppy, just trying to find ourselves – so we’re definitely getting better in that area.
The challenge is keep going that way.
Using team chemistry as a barometer of success
I think it’s team to team. We’ve been pretty good for a while. We just hadn’t clicked in any of these games, these Quad 1 games that everybody had been talking about. Mississippi State is pretty dang good. Some of the other ones we had were pretty good.
But it all came together Wednesday night. Being able to withstand that rally before halftime and get it back down to five, I thought we really poised that way, just over the course of the 45 minutes. Kentucky is really good.
They’re going to be really hard to beat and do everything they can to knock you down, but our guys kept getting up.
On Riley Kugel's performance
He had four assists and zero turnovers in that game. It was a big part of why we won. I think we were 17 to nine as a team, assist to turnover, which is obviously really good, especially on an opposing team’s floor. I think the biggest thing is we’re just trying to keep it simple.
We’re not trying to make hero plays where we’re trying to make two-on-one or three-on-one decisions. We’re letting the next guy make the play and we did a really good job of that on Wednesday night.
Getting three-point shots to finally fall
Felt great to see that. That’s kind of what you need to do to get a win like that on the road. We talk about the number being 10. You’ve got to hit 10 threes in a game like that and we were on eight for a while and I think Walter made the last three or four to get us to 12 and it just gives you a much better chance of winning those games.
The way we shot it from the line was fantastic as well, really poised. We made big free throws. (Alex Condon) stepped up and made some big ones. (Pullin) I think made all but one and Walter made some big ones late and it’s what good teams do, get yourself in a position where you can make some shots and win a game.
Down the stretch, you have to hold onto it and I thought we did a pretty good job of that — minus the one turnover late.
The lack of a late timeout during regulation
I generally like to give our guys freedom in that situation to make plays. I don’t like to give the opposing team the opportunity to set up a different defense or talk about how they want to cover us and I think it played to our benefit on the last play of the game.
But in that situation, we were a little disjointed and obviously that was a do-or-die possession and if we didn’t score there we were going to be done so we just wanted to make sure, more than anything, that we were organized and that we knew what we were trying to do.
The overall sentiment on the Kentucky win
It was huge. I think the level of belief was where it needed to be down four with 25 seconds or whatever it was.
I think analytically we had like a four percent chance of winning the game or something so it was a situation where it would have been very easy to let it go but Tyrese gets a shot blocked and gets it out to Riley and Riley made a really, really poised, smart play, playing downhill and getting off of two feet dropping it off instead of taking a tough shot.
Then we executed a foul, they gave us a free throw and we did a great job playing off two feet in the halfcourt and Walter got (Reed Sheppard]) up in the air. We just played within ourselves. We didn’t try to do too much and we took what the situation gave us and got ourselves extra life in overtime. We felt good once we got to overtime. It was like once we got there, brand new life. Five minutes.
Obviously, we knew how it felt to be the other team because we had just done it on Saturday and that wasn’t a great feeling and I thought we really took advantage of it. Tyrese hitting that jumper at the beginning of overtime settled us really well and then made some really good plays.
Talking about Florida's OT victories so far
You know, listen, overtime games, I don’t want to say they’re coin flips, but, you now, they’re a lot tighter in that sense. And we made some shots, you know, we made shots in the Michigan game in the second overtime.
Against Georgia, I think we shot 75% from the field in overtime and then on Wednesday we were really efficient as well. But you know, we have been playing confidently in those moments, you know, and I’m just not sure what else to say about that.
Distinguishing the fine line between confidence and over-confidence
You know, we talked a lot about enjoying it on Wednesday night, you know, like we’re getting on the plane, we’re obviously very happy. It was a big game for us, you know something I think this program hasn’t done since 2003, winning on the road against a top-10 team.
But Thursday, yesterday, when we met, it was like, “Hey what’s won is done,” like we won that game and it’s in the past. And if we feel like we’ve arrived or we feel like we can just walk into A&M and, you know, play, it ain’t gonna happen. We’re going to get blasted.
This is a really tough place to play, and, you know, this game will be just as challenging as our Kentucky game was, and the great thing is I feel like I can be a little harder on our guys after a win, because it’s easier to teach that way. But making sure this is a new challenge for our team that we haven’t experienced this year in terms of having to handle success, we won four games in a row.
Finally, people are saying ‘OK, maybe Florida is pretty good’, you know, we felt that way about ourselves all year. But now because you win the game against Kentucky, people think, “Oh, you know, Florida, they’re there.”
Now if we have that mentality we’re just gonna go right back to where people thought, and so all day yesterday, all day today and all day tomorrow on our prep, a big part of the conversation will be handling success and making sure that we don’t allow ourselves to feel good, too good, going into this game.
We got to have confidence, and obviously we should be able to pull that from that game Wednesday. They want to keep winning — human nature wants to relax, but we can’t relax.
Is Pullin's performance something Golden expected?
I thought he was going to be really good. This good, that good – he’s a stud. You know, he’s old, won a lot of games, came from a system and a program that values a lot of the same things that we do, so I don’t think there was as much of a transition period for him.
A lot of the same language defensively, a lot of the same ball screens offensively, and he’s a guy that just played off the scene a little bit at Riverside. They were really good, they won 20 games almost every year he was there, multiple games where they beat high-major teams, and I think he had a lot of respect within college basketball.
But coming here, has he maybe adjusted a little better than people anticipated? Maybe, but he’s just one of the best point guards in America, like, he’s just really strong, he’s tough, incredibly confident and comfortable with the ball. And he just has a great ability to settle your team, especially when teams are trying to bother you, and obviously the way he hit free throws at the end of the game is huge as well.
On the matchup with Texas A&M
They do two things incredibly well. They’re obviously an amazing rebounding team. I think we’re No. 2 nationally right now offensive rebounding, I think they’re one. So that’s going to be quite the scene on Saturday that way — they get to line a lot.
Then defensively they do a good job taking you out of what you run. They play like a little matchup zone, they guard different things, they switch a lot. They try to make you uncomfortable, so you’re not gonna be able to run your normal offense for most of the game. But you got to take advantage of when they trap the ball and when they take chances, which they do a little bit. So a different game stylistically.
It’ll be a lot different than the Kentucky game, that’s for sure. It’s more similar to the Missouri game, more similar to Mississippi State, teams that really like to get after you defensively. But they’re good. They’re really tough on their home floor.
They beat Kentucky on their home floor. So it’s a team, especially with Wade Taylor. They have some weapons and they just have a very physical mentality in terms of the way they play. So that’s gonna be the challenge is making sure we go in there and fight the fight properly.
The value of Florida's win over Kentucky
It was obviously really big for us. I think, not trying to downplay it, but whether it was this game, or whether it was Auburn next week or A&M on Saturday — just getting over the hump and one of those type, quad, whatever high games was important to us. It just happened to be Kentucky.
And obviously, there’s a little more fanfare and a little more recognition about that game because of who they are, what they ranked. And I think Cal wins 92% of his games in that building or something along those lines. But to me, it’s a little bit of a validator in terms of what we’re doing and a great opportunity to build confidence for our group.
So for us in balancing what we were talking to Chris about, where we can’t get too high because if you do that you’re gonna get smacked on your face in this league. But you got to be confident coming off that. You just can’t allow yourself to be arrogant and not remember what you did prior to the Kentucky game to put yourself in that position.
We have to have the same preparation, the same mentality going in this game against A&M on Saturday.
The Gators will travel to College Station to take on the Aggies on Saturday, Feb. 3, for the first game of the new month. The matchup is set to tip off at 4 p.m. ET and can be watched on ESPN2.