LEXINGTON, Ky. – Stop me if you’ve heard this one: John Calipari so loves one-and-dones even his seniors abide by the theory.
OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I heard the line paraphrased on press row Saturday at Rupp Arena during Kentucky’s 61-57 win against No. 11 Florida on a Senior Day that featured two seniors who have been part of the program for a combined three years, so it was too good to ignore. Especially when one of those seniors, Julius Mays, scores 13 points and sinks two free throws with nine seconds left to seal a victory that seemed improbable after the Wildcats had their fur handed to them by 10 points at Georgia on Thursday.
That loss left Kentucky at 20-10 and its faithful wondering if the team would get the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. Saturday’s win, in which Kentucky shut out Florida for the final 7:36 and erased the Gators’ 57-50 lead with an 11 straight points to end the game, eased those worries for at least a few days.
Kentucky took the lead for good, 58-57, when freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein made one of two free throws with 3:03 left. Florida would have the ball five more possessions, including two in which it pulled down offensive rebounds, but couldn’t score.
“At our best, we are an NCAA tournament team,” said Calipari. “When we’re not at our best, we’re not very good. That takes everybody playing. That takes everybody being responsible.”
Calipari isn’t shy when it comes to defending his method of recruiting players who have the talent and mindset to play in the NBA sooner than later. He nearly won a national title at Memphis in 2008 with the philosophy (even though that Final Four trip was later vacated because of the Derrick Rose SAT scandal), and it served Kentucky well last season when it won the program’s eighth national title.
Six of those Wildcats were drafted, including Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist going Nos. 1-2 after their freshman seasons. Sophomore Terrence Jones and freshman Marquis Teague joined them in the first round.
That legacy left a lot of expectations and burden on this season’s 5-star-studded recruiting class, heavier than they probably realized. Cauley-Stein, fellow forward Alex Poythress and guard Archie Goodwin along with injured forward Nerlens Noel, it was assumed, would pick up where last season’s team left off. UK nipped Maryland by three points in its opener before losing to Duke. The Wildcats were routed at Notre Dame and then came home and lost to Baylor.
Noel tore an ACL in a 17-point loss at Florida on Feb. 12. UK lost by 30 at Tennessee in its first game without its best player. The Wildcats are 0-3 on the road without Noel, but Saturday was their fourth straight home victory without him.
Goodwin led Kentucky with 16 points and a career-high four steals. Poythress scored nine points and grabbed 12 rebounds, while Cauley-Stein had eight rebounds, four blocked shots and played the final 11 minutes with four fouls. When he left the floor because of that fourth foul, UK led 45-38 with 13:42 remaining. Calipari put him back out there after Florida reeled off eight straight points to take the lead.
Instead of faltering, Kentucky eventually found itself for the win Saturday and possibly for the postseason. The Southeastern Conference tournament in Nashville, Tenn., begins on Wednesday. A couple of more wins there and the Wildcats hope to be in the field of 68.
“A lot of young guys, if you put another group of young guys in this situation and I guarantee they wouldn’t have responded the ways these guys have,” said Mays, a graduate student who played at Wright State last season. “We’ve taken the criticism. We’ve had times where we’ve laid down, lost a few games in a row and have had to respond. There are a lot of teams that couldn’t do that with older guys on their teams, so I’m very proud of my team.”