Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Kentucky 68, Florida 65

One of the blessings of sport is that is a result-driven affair. At the end of the game, all you need to do is look at the final score to know what happened. Conclusions are drawn off those numbers. People are judged off those numbers. And those conclusions, those judgments, can't be questioned. The score is all that matters.

And that is also the great cruelty of sport.

Nick Calathes played the game of life, slashing through Kentucky's defense and draining extraordinary shots against stifling defenders. He scored 33 points, a career high, grabbed seven rebounds and dished three assists. And he ended up standing on the free throw line in Kentucky's Rupp Arena, his team down by three with six tenths of a second left, trying to figure out how he was going to turn one free throw into three points.

He was there because Kentucky's Jodie Meeks (who is one game away from earning a profane middle name) hit an absurd three pointer over his out-stretched hand with six seconds left. Calathes stuck with Meeks, played laudable defense and forced his man, the best scorer in the SEC, to alter his form and heave up an off-balance three as the shot clock expired. And it swished through the net, giving Kentucky the lead.

Calathes streaked down the court and threw up his own desperation three; it fell short and wide, but only because UK's Kevin Galloway fouled him on the shot. Calathes was 11 of 12 from the charity stripe at that point and had made nine in a row. My statistically inclined friends are going to scold me for saying this, but the math didn't augur well. Nick needed to make all three shots, and doing so would have given up a streak of 12 straight converted free throws. I didn't like those odds.

For good reason. Calathes' first shot rimmed out. He missed his second. And so he was left with the enjoyable task of intentionally missing the shot with enough velocity so that it would bounce to the three-point line. There, one of his teammates would pick it up and drain the game-tying three. In six-tenths of a second.

The plan predictably failed; Calathes' line drive missed the rim and Kentucky got the ball back. UF fell to 19-5, 6-3 in the SEC.

Florida was in a position to be heartbroken by Jodie Meeks because at several points in the second half they blew leads and because they consistently allowed Kentucky to gather offensive rebounds and score on second chance shots. The Wildcats out-rebounded the Gators, 39-25, and 11 of those were on the offensive end.

The Gators forced 19 turnovers in the game and held Kentucky to just 30 points in the first half. Granted, Kentucky held Florida to just 30 points in the first half, so the Gators didn't take great advantage of their defensive performance.

Walter Hodge, UF's lone senior, was ejected early in the second half after a bizarre series of events that began with Chandler Parsons being fouled on a three point attempt. It ended with Hodge walking off the court, ejected after the officials huddled around a monitor and determined that Florida's shooting guard deliberately stepped on the arm of UK's Perry Stevenson. I've seen the replays a dozen times and I can't say for sure whether Hodge did that intentionally; I have to wonder at the wisdom of ejecting a player in a close conference game on such a questionable play.

Hodge's loss didn't affect the Gators all that much. They pulled out to a 45-39 lead with 12:32 left in the game, but fell behind 48-47 just two minutes later.

Florida was able to re-gain the lead shortly thereafter and pushed it to six on two separate occasions, but the game basically oscillated between various small Florida advantages. But the Gators gave the Wildcats an opening when Chandler Parsons missed two free throws with 2:40 left and Florida clinging to a three-point lead.

Exactly two minutes later, after Kentucky had gained a slim one-point lead, Dan Werner made a free throw to tie the game. But he missed his second shot, and Kentucky gained control of the ball with 40 seconds left and the game tied at 65. After an exchange of timeouts and some manuevering from Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, Meeks hit the game-winning shot.

The Gators' next three games are the three easiest left on their schedule. Georgia and Alabama are both crummy and coach-less. Vanderbilt, at least, is just plain crummy. It's imperative UF sweep those three games; if they do, they'll go into the home stretch with a 9-3 conference record. At that point, all they really need to do to put themselves into the NCAA tournament is win one game against LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee or Kentucky.

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