It didn’t matter that the Cats were 23-5 and tied for first in the SEC. It didn’t matter that a spot in the NCAA Tournament, likely a 3 seed currently, was already secured. This rematch with the Florida Gators had a “must win” feeling to it.
This feeling was no doubt fueled by the Cats’ inconsistent play the past few weeks, and it certainly didn’t help matters that Kentucky had been thoroughly embarrassed in Gainesville three weeks ago. And because it seems this edition of the Wildcats cannot seem to catch a break, the status of De’Aaron Fox was in doubt after having banged up his knee in Tuesday night’s contest versus Missouri.in
When the teams came out to warm up, fans were encouraged when they saw Fox in his uniform, participating (somewhat) in the shoot around. The happiness was short-lived however when Fox returned for player introductions dressed in street clothes. We knew UK was in for a tough game even if Fox were playing, but to face the Gators without their starting point guard would provide a big challenge for the Cats.
The start of the game wasn’t ideal as UK fell behind quickly, 18-6. But tenacious defense and a commitment to winning the battle of the boards steadied the ship, and the teams went to the locker room at halftime tied at 28 points apiece. The 2nd half started slowly for the Cats again, and by the first media timeout, Florida had opened up an 8-point lead, 45-37. This was now gut check time. Could Kentucky return to the team they were in December and pick up this win and take sole possession of 1st place in the SEC?
The answer was a resounding “Yes” as super frosh Malik Monk exploded for 30 2nd half points (33 for the game), leading the Cats to a 76-66 win. But Monk’s performance doesn’t tell the whole story. What we saw was progress. This wasn’t just a one-man show. This was a team victory, one that required the Cats to fight, and fight they did. I left the game feeling more encouraged about this team and their chances in March than I had felt in many weeks. Give Monk his due, but let’s not forget these key points:
This game was not perfect by any means. Shooting 28% in the first half certainly isn’t ideal, nor is having 16 turnovers. There were still a few lapses into bad habits, prompting Coach Cal to say in his post-game remarks that he still needed to “tweak” a few things on the team’s “reboot.” But perfection is not the goal, at least not on this weekend. Progress was the goal, and that was achieved.
So is the team peaking at the right time? It would appear they are on track to do so, but we’ll all know the answer very soon. In case you hadn’t looked at your calendar, March will be here on Tuesday and we know what that means: everything matters.
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