Saturday, March 7, 2009

Florida 60, Kentucky 53

It wasn't pretty, and it's not going to be enough to single-handedly salvage Florida's NCAA Tournament hopes. But the Gators pulled off an ugly victory over an arch-rival on Senior Day, and in doing so left themselves with at least a shred of credible tournament aspirations.

Walter Hodge, the winningest player in Florida history, played big in his final game at The O'Dome. Hodge scored 18 points on seven of 12 shooting, drained three three-pointers, recorded three steals and played a huge role in the full court press that bedeviled Kentucky throughout the game. These UF-UK matchups are interesting: Kentucky has the size to exploit Florida inside, but the Wildcats are a horrible ball-handling team, and the Gators have had a lot of success pressing and hectoring them over the last two or three years. Florida forced Kentucky into 23 turnovers, against only seven assists and 23 field goals.

The Gators held Kentucky to two of 11 from behind the arc and led wire-to-wire. UK never got closer than six points in the second half, despite out-rebounding the Gators by 10 and grabbing 11 offensive rebounds. Kentucky big man Patrick Patterson, who spurned the Gators two years ago, scored 16 points and recorded 13 rebounds. UK was actually reasonably competent in their halfcourt offense, but simply gave away too many possessions with silly passes and poor ball handling.

But Jodie Meeks, the other half of Kentucky's two-headed monster, shot six of 18 and just two of nine from three point land. The Wildcats have nothing behind Meeks and Patterson; they need both to play at their best to win games against legit teams.

Florida won without a Herculean effort from sophomore point guard Nick Calathes, who continues to struggle with fatigue and the flu. Calathes scored just five points on two of nine shooting and committed seven turnovers to go against the same number of assists. He did have three steals.

The win gives Florida a final regular season record of 22-9, 9-7 in the SEC. Both are fairly gaudy figures, but with the weakness in both UF's out of conference and conference schedules, it's not enough to win a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Fortunately, the Gators have a chance to pile up some victories in the SEC Tournament. They'll open against Arkansas, the conference's worst team. A rejuvenated Auburn team earned a first-round bye and awaits the winner of that game in the quarterfinals. If things go as they should, Tennessee will beat the winner of the opening round Ole Miss-Vanderbilt game and advance to the semis.

I think Florida needs three tournament wins. Two probably makes UF the last team out of the tournament; Arkansas is downright crummy, and Auburn, while improved from early in the year, doesn't provide the credibility UF needs.

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