LEXINGTON, Ky. — Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin took a few minutes Saturday night to sit down on the Florida bench as his teammates warmed up in advance of their super-hyped showdown with Kentucky.
He looked around as the masses filed into massive Rupp Arena, already abuzz for the biggest Southeastern Conference game of the year. That’s when he leaned over to freshman teammate Kasey Hill and offered some advice.
"You need to be ready and you need to understand," Wilbekin told Hill. "If they make one 3-pointer, if they make one fastbreak layup or an and-one or a dunk — it doesn’t matter how small the play is or what the score is — this place is going to go crazy. We just have to keep playing offense, keep playing defense and keep fighting through it."
For the next two-plus hours, Wilbekin lived those words of wisdom, as did the rest of the third-ranked Gators, who defied the odds, defied the environment and defied the 14th-ranked Wildcats and their all-world freshmen-laden squad for a 69-59 upset victory before 24,425 disappointed witnesses to a rare home defeat.
The silence was deafening.
"We’d never heard the silence," senior forward Casey Prather said after handing UK just its third home loss in the last five years. "But we love the silence."
Prather scored a game-high 24 points on 8-for-9 shooting to go with five rebounds. Wilbekin, making a run for Southeastern Player of the Year, added 23 points, including an icy 11-for-12 from the free-throw line, to hit his second career-high scoring night in as many games. And he did it without a turnover for a second straight game.
With the win, Florida (23-2, 12-0) tied the school record of 17 straight victories, a mark shared with the 2006-07 NCAA title team, and took a commanding three-game lead on Kentucky (19-6, 9-3) for first place in the Southeastern Conference standings.
"We have a lot of guys that believe in each other and we believe in our teammates, and so we believe we can make plays down the stretch," senior forward Will Yeguete said. "We try to just stay in the moment and stay in the game and just keep going and playing defense."
Doing those things in Lexington was supposed to harder.
Virtually from the dawn of the league, Kentucky has been everybody’s Super Bowl and has nonetheless dominated the conference since its inception. This time, though, it was UK that hosted the ESPN "GameDay" crew and Cat fans who were out in force early in the morning to whip themselves into a frenzy for a visit from the defending SEC champion.
A chance for their young guns to make a statement at home in prime time.
Meanwhile, Florida spoke all week about treating the game like just another the game. Sure enough, it played out like most of UF’s other road dates this SEC season, with the grizzled Gators weathering the emotion and enthusiasm of the youthful Wildcats before eventually wearing them down with 40 minutes of efficiency, especially on the defensive end.
"They are all seniors and they have that communication and I think that is where they had the advantage over us," said UK guard James Young, who scored 19 points for the Wildcats. "We should have come out with just a little more power in the second half and just finished out strong."
The Gators weren’t going to let that happen.
Down by seven midway through the second half, UF managed to claw back and retake the lead until UK tied it at 53 with six minutes to go.
From there, the Gators outscored the Cats 16-6 to end the game, mostly from the free-throw line by forcing the action with either hard drives to the basket or beating UK at its own game on the offensive glass. Kentucky came in ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive rebounding, yet the Gators won that statistic 10-9, and also shot 60 percent in the second half after hitting just 33 in the first.
"What they did, they’ve done, I’m guessing, 10 games this year. With five minutes to go, four minutes to go, three minutes to go, it’s anybody’s ballgame," Coach John Calipari said after falling to 81-3 in home games since coming to UK for the 2009-10 season. "Then they just grind better than the other team grinds it, like they did us. They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch."
In a game of where the lead changed 12 times and was tied another 11 times, the crowd was taken on an emotional roller-coaster ride for about 32 minutes. Each time the Cats made a run — like the 10-1 spree to go up seven in the first half or the 11-2 blitz to go up seven with 11 to go in the game — the Rupp din was just waiting to explode; waiting for that next UF mistake or that next big UK shot.
Yes, they had. UF’s four senior were juniors last year when they caved to the Rupp raucous and blew a seven-point lead in the final 7 1/2 minutes by failing to score a single point.
How did they keep their cool this time?
"We have a veteran group that has panicked before," senior center Patric Young said. "By doing that, we know not the way to do things."
The game’s final 11 minutes were a lesson in poise and composure. On the court and the bench.
A couple old-fashioned 3-point beauties from Young (10 points, 5 rebounds) — both hook shots in the face of UK 7-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein — were sandwiched around a 3-point shot by Wilbekin that helped erase that seven-point deficit and give the Gators a one-point lead with less than nine minutes to play. Wilbekin’s trey also snapped an ugly drought that saw the Gators make just one of their first 12 from distance.
Kentucky forward Julius Randle (13 points, 13 rebounds) sank a couple free throws to stave off the UF rally and give the Cats a 48-47 lead with 8:14 to go. The crowd crescendo began.
But seemingly out of nowhere, Calipari was hit with a technical foul right after those free throws.
"I don’t know what he heard me say with my back to him," Calipari said of the official who whistled the tech. "So you have to ask him."
Wilbekin went to the other end, sank a pair to give the Gators the lead back, and then Prather scored on a jumper to make it a 51-48 lead.
UK worked back to tie the game on a 3-pointer shot from guard Aaron Harrison, his only field goal of the day, but that was when Florida began putting the hammer down with free throws from Wilbekin and Prather, plus a couple key offensive rebounds. Out inched the UF lead. Then one Dorian Finney-Smith (8 points, 5 rebounds) grabbed an offensive board in traffice and passed it out to Michael Frazier II for a knifing 3-pointer — his only basket of the game — and five-point lead at the 4:16 mark.
Kentucky got the margin back to three, but never any closer.
Andrew Harrison led UK with 20 points, but Randle, the team’s scoring and rebounding leader, totaled just three points over the final 22 minutes and was held without a field goal during that stretch in the face of UF’s swarming, collapsing defense.
"You just don’t walk in here and win because you get lucky," UF coach Billy Donovan said after just his fourth victory in 18 trips to Rupp. "You have to play well and do some things in the game."
The Gators were going to guard, that was a given. But they had to overcome another tough first-half shooting effort (10-for-30 from the floor, 1-for-9 from 3), battle the much bigger Wildcats to a draw on the glass (UKâs edge was just 31-28 ) and not waste scoring opportunities at the free-throw line (Florida went 22-for-28).
"It was kind of something where you had to stay the course," Donovan said.
The fans started filing out with more than a minute to go. When Prather worked free for a run-out layup, and was fouled with 38 seconds left, Rupp Arena turned mausoleum.
Except for a few scattered screams from the rafters directed at the officials.
"It was eerie," Young said.
Because it was different.
"We heard somebody say that if you win at Kentucky, it gets really quiet," Prather said. "I didn’t think it could get that quiet."
Make no mistake. The silence was heard around the SEC.
The Gators are old, the Gators are good, and the Gators know how to win. Now they’ve won in the nation’s most difficult venue.
"We just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s get it done.’ We can do that and believe it because we’re seniors and we’ve been hardened," Prather said. "We know how to get through the tough nights like these."