It was an offensive struggle, but Kentucky tops Florida for another SEC basketball win

The offensive struggle that was expected largely came to fruition in Rupp Arena on Saturday night.

Kentucky came out on the better end of it.

The Wildcats defeated Florida 72-67 in a game that lacked high-octane scoring, especially early on, but was packed with plenty of energy.

Oscar Tshiebwe had a dunk on Kentucky’s first possession and CJ Fredrick nailed a three-pointer on the Cats’ second possession to give UK a 5-0 lead in the first 90 seconds. The Wildcats never trailed and led by double digits for much of the second half, though Myreon Jones hit a three-pointer with 38 seconds left to make it a 70-67 game, the first time it had been a one-possession contest since the 12:28 mark of the first half.

Cason Wallace later hit two free throws to set the final score.

Wallace returned from a knee injury that forced him to miss Tuesday’s game and led UK with 20 points. Jacob Toppin had 17 points and 10 rebounds. Fredrick made his first three three-pointers and ended up with 12 points.

Kentucky improved to 16-7 overall and 7-3 in the Southeastern Conference standings.

Both teams struggled mightily on offense out of the gate.

Florida missed 13 of its first 15 shots and ended up 7-for-26 at halftime. Kentucky missed nine of its first 11 shots, 14 of its first 18 attempts, and shot just 13-for-34 in the first half.

Tshiebwe, the Wildcats’ leading scorer and the reigning national player of the year, was especially off in the early going. He was 1-for-10 from the field (with zero free throws) at one point in the game. Tshiebwe fouled out with 1:38 left, tallying just four points to go along with 15 rebounds. He was 2-for-14 from the field.

Florida entered Rupp at No. 9 nationally (according to the KenPom ratings) in defensive efficiency, a team with a reputation of protecting the rim, defending the perimeter, and generally making things tough on opponents in the halfcourt. Kentucky, of course, has the reputation of a team that struggles to generate points in the halfcourt offense.

UK finished the game 28-for-62 from the field and 5-for-11 from deep. The Wildcats were much better from the floor in the second half — going 15-for-28 after the break.

Even when UK was struggling to score, however, hustle plays energized the Rupp Arena crowd, which popped several times for Wildcats who hit the floor for loose balls and put in effort to keep possessions alive on the boards. On one play, Fredrick drove the length of the floor for an and-one play — his momentum and a Florida foul sending him barreling out of bounds and into a cameraman seated on the baseline. Fredrick stayed down for about a minute before staying in the game (and hitting the ensuing free throw).

As good as the Gators can be defensively, they often struggle to score points. KenPom had them at No. 146 in offensive efficiency before Saturday’s game. Florida was 23-for-55 from the floor.

Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler (2) attacks the basket against Florida on Saturday.
Kentucky’s Sahvir Wheeler (2) attacks the basket against Florida on Saturday.

The Gators (13-10, 6-4 SEC) came into Rupp Arena off a 67-54 home victory over No. 2-ranked Tennessee on Wednesday night. (The Vols beat No. 25 Auburn 46-43 in another offensive struggle earlier Saturday.)

The jersey of late Kentucky basketball legend Mike Pratt was retired to the Rupp Arena rafters at halftime, with UK play-by-play announcer Tom Leach, Wildcats teammate Dan Issel, and Pratt’s wife, Marcia Pratt, all addressing the crowd during the ceremony. A prerecorded video message from UK Coach John Calipari, who was in the locker room with the Wildcats during the break, was also played.

Pratt is the 45th Kentucky basketball legend (and 39th player) to have his jersey retired. He played for the Wildcats from 1967-70 and was the radio analyst for UK basketball games from 2001 until his death last year.

Kentucky will stay home for its next game — a Tuesday night date with Arkansas, which is currently regarded as a “Quad 1” game by the NCAA’s metrics. UK is 1-6 in Quad 1 games so far this season. Arkansas beat South Carolina 65-63 on Saturday.

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