The No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats just needed to finish off the Florida Gators for perfection — yes, an amazing 31-0 regular season.
To start the game on Senior Day, head coach John Calipari allowed three senior walk-ons to start the game for the Cats. They only received 0:22 of playing time, but it was a classy move by coach Calipari and the rest of the team, voting for the walk-ons to start their last game at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The move was a tremendous touch with Kentucky on the verge of an historic undefeated season.
The Gators, coached by the great Billy Donovan, have been superb in recent memory, winning back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. In fact, Donovan is only the second coach in NCAA Division I men’s basketball to reach 500 victories before turning fifty-years-old. Only the great Bob Knight did it faster.
Donovan’s undermanned and less talented squad certainly did not back down from the Cats in the early portion of Saturday afternoon’s game, taking an 11-7 lead within the first 10:00 of the contest.
Continuing to play well, Florida took a 21-17 lead with 05:50 remaining in the first half after an 8-0 spurt. Clearly the Wildcats were not playing their best basketball during the first 20:00, yet they still managed to take a 30-27 lead to the locker room. Kentucky big men, Trey Lyles and Karl Anthony-Towns led the way for the Cats in the opening frame. Lyles knocked down shots, and Anthony-Towns dominated on the defensive end of the floor, rejecting Gator shots as if he was at a block party. Donovan’s guys must have felt deflated at the break, still trailing Kentucky after outplaying them in the first half on the road.
As the second half got underway, the Gators continued to hang tough until Kentucky remembered that the Cats are 49-1 as the No. 1 ranked team in the country at Rupp. Additionally, this team was looking for an unprecedented 31-0 regular season. You have to go all of the way back to the 1953-54 season in order to find a Wildcats’ team that got close to this mark — that season, Kentucky went 25-0 before suffering their first loss.
Coming into Saturday’s regular season finale, Kentucky had stretched their record to 30-0. Here is a fun and interesting fact — six of twelve teams that reached the 30-0 mark ended up winning a national title, with ten reaching the Final Four. We will call that a good omen for the Wildcats come NCAA tournament time.
Kasey Hill led the way for the Gators with 15 points, attacking the rim against the Kentucky trees. Speaking of trees, Anthony-Towns sparked the Wildcats with 13 points, 9 rebounds, 6 blocks, 3 assists and a steal. Unfortunately, Willie Cauley-Stein did not have any filthy dunks in the game, keeping my backside flush to my seat — I was really hoping to get some good jumps off of the couch today. However, Cauley-Stein did show his versatility on defense, being able to guard all five positions as a seven-footer. Very impressive!!
A 7-0 run with 08:10 remaining pushed Kentucky’s lead to double-digits, 51-41. The Wildcats never looked back, finishing off the Gators with a 67-50 victory and a perfect 31-0 regular season record. After the final horn, players were donning blue shirts with “31-0” in white and the phrase “not done yet.”
If you looked close enough in the final minutes of the game, there was even an Ashley Judd sighting — really, no Kentucky game at Rupp is complete without her in the picture. Again I ask; can anyone keep Kentucky from going 40-0 and winning a national championship?
*Photo credit to Andy Lyons, Getty Images