When Kentucky freshman sensation Nerlens Noel hit the padding behind the backboard under the Florida goal late in the second half of the Wildcats’ 69-52 loss to the No. 7 Gators, he went down fast and hard, grabbing his left knee and yelling in pain.
Noel had gone up to block a shot during one of Florida’s many fast breaks, a move that had become something of a trademark in recent weeks as Noel led the NCAA in shots blocked per game. That was the primary reason he was being talked about as potentially the No.1 overall pick in this year’s NBA draft.
He got the block, and the basket support, too. And while the extent of the injury was unknown immediately after Tuesday’s game, Noel’s pain and the way he was carried off the court summed up the night and, perhaps the season, for the Wildcats.
Noel was taken out of the arena in a wheelchair with his knee in a brace, a towel hiding his anguished face.
“I’m physically sick for him right now,” Coach John Calipari said of his star. “What I’m hoping is it’s not the extreme. We took him to the hospital. We don’t know yet. We just all as a team got together and prayed for him for a minute and sent him to the hospital.
“I didn’t see much. It looked ugly. He was yelling and screaming so that’s why I stayed [with him]. It’s unfortunate. I just hope and pray he’s OK.”
X-rays taken after the game on Noel came back negative, but he is expected to have an MRI Wednesday.
“I did not see what had happened under our basket, but I just hope for his sake and for his team that it’s not too severe and that he’s OK,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I admire the way he plays. I admire his energy. I don’t know how bad he is hurt, but the injury came from a hustle play.”
The Noel injury was the worst part of a very bad night for the No. 25 Wildcats (17-7, 8-3 SEC), as they were trounced in very old school fashion in Gainesville.
Florida (20-3, 10-1) didn’t just win; the Gators dominated in every way. They shot better from the floor, hit more 3-pointers, made more free throws, assisted better, blocked more shots, set better screens and played much better defense. In fact, the final score and the distraction from Noel’s injury in no way reflected how one-sided this one was.
Donovan’s squad, led by rejuvenated junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and center Patric Young, kept the Wildcats off kilter and out of any offensive rhythm all night.
In so doing, the Gators put an emphatic exclamation point on their spot atop the SEC, but they did something else as well, something far more important to college basketball than one win or even one season, and something that hopefully isn’t overshadowed by the fate of one injured player.
They showed everyone that experience matters.
Kentucky, as always, put a lot of talent on the floor starting with Noel, and extending on to freshman guard Archie Goodwin and freshman forward Alex Poythress. But the Wildcats are, as Calipari says ad nauseam, young and often immature, which has become a staple in the one-and-done era of college basketball.
Florida, on the other hand, has only one freshman in its top eight players, guard Michael Frazier II, who played limited minutes off the bench and took only one shot. The rest of the Gators lineup consists of juniors and seniors, men who have refined their skills, increased their strength, and in some cases upped their long-term stock by logging more hours on the college court.
Five Florida players scored in double-digits against Kentucky, led by Wilbekin who had 14 points and eight assists. Young and guards Mike Rosario and Casey Prather all had 12 points while forward Eric Murphy had 10.
Kenny Boynton was the only starter to fall short of the double-digit mark, but he came close, finishing with nine points, two assists and a couple of steals.
But the Gators won because of the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet: things like a half-court man-to-man defense that gave up no easy shots, or setting quality screens or creating turnovers through sheer hustle in transition.
Ball movement, unity, communication, selflessness, patience and tenacity are all learned traits, forged from years of experience.
That is what this Gators team brought to the floor against Kentucky, and what Donovan hopes will carry them through the rest of the regular season and into the tournament.
“It’s only one game, and we still have a lot more games in the league to play,” Donovan said. “We have to move past this one and get ready for the next one, but I’m very proud of the way our team’s played.
“I think those guys developing, for me as a coach, I’ve always enjoyed that. I think I probably embodied that myself as a player. I was probably awful my first two years and progressively better. But when you see a guy develop and grow and mature, as a coach, that is what is rewarding.”
Depending on the extent of the injury and what it means for the rest of his season, the story of the night could end up being Noel.
But that doesn’t diminish how the Gators played, or the message they sent in the process.