Kentucky had some major struggles against Florida. And that was a good thing for the Cats.
Oscar Tshiebwe scored four points. He missed 12 of the 14 shots he took.
Antonio Reeves scored four points. He didn’t play the final nine minutes.
And Kentucky defeated Florida 72-67 on Saturday night in a game that wasn’t quite as close as the final score would indicate.
A UK basketball team that has struggled to find its identity throughout this 2022-23 season is still far from a finished product, but these Cats continue to learn more about themselves each time they step on the court, and the win over the Gators had John Calipari in about as good of a postgame mood as the Kentucky coach has displayed in recent weeks.
The reason? With UK’s top two scorers effectively shut down, other Wildcats stepped up. And they did it not necessarily by putting points on the board — though there was some of that — but by making winning basketball plays.
Ever since Kentucky lost to lowly South Carolina in Rupp Arena on Jan. 10, Calipari has preached “winning each day” to his Cats, telling them to focus on the moment — whether that be a practice, a film session, an afternoon in the weight room or an actual game — and to no look ahead. More recently, he’s talked up being “an all-star in your role,” and Kentucky’s play against the Gators was perhaps the best example of that so far.
At one point in his postgame press conference, Calipari said there was a player that UK wouldn’t have won without Saturday night. A few different names were tossed back at him.
“I like that you think there is more than one guy. That makes me feel good,” Calipari said, genuinely pleased.
The UK coach said he was speaking of point guard Sahvir Wheeler, but he later acknowledged the contributions of so many others.
“A lot of people stepped up tonight,” senior guard CJ Fredrick said.
Fredrick gave Kentucky an early 5-0 lead when he let fly from three-point range on the team’s second offensive possession. The noted sharpshooter had missed 21 of 26 threes over UK’s previous five games and was shooting 25.6 percent since returning from an injury to his shooting hand last month. He made his first three three-point attempts Saturday.
“My job is to come in and shoot balls,” he said. “I’m not going to make every shot. But I have to have the mindset of shooting when I’m open, and when you’re in a slump like that, just continuing to work. Coming in early, getting shots up. Just continuing to do what I do.”
Notably, this was the first game since his return that Fredrick didn’t have to wear a protective wrap on the fingers of his shooting hand. He’s always quick to swat back the opening to make excuses. He did so again when asked about playing without the wrap Saturday, then he made an admission.
“I’ll be honest, it’s a lot better without it,” he said with a tone of relief.
Freshman guard Cason Wallace led the Cats with 20 points. He took only 10 shots from the field. He made seven of them. He iced the game with two late free throws. He hit a big three down the stretch. He made key defensive plays throughout the game.
Florida Coach Todd Golden is a lover of analytics, and he oversees one of the nation’s best defenses, a group that makes things difficult at the rim and on the perimeter. Wallace nailed three mid-range jumpers amid his scoring spree.
“You’ve gotta pick what you’re gonna give up against a team like this,” Golden said. “And, you know, I’m always going to be OK with the opposing team shooting mid-range shots. You’ve gotta tip your cap when they beat you, and I thought Cason played a really good game tonight.”
Fellow freshman Chris Livingston was an absolute ball of energy, especially in the game’s opening minutes, when the notoriously slow-starting Cats jumped out to an 8-2 lead to set the tone on a night they never trailed. Livingston was all over the place — in a good way — disrupting Florida’s flow, tipping balls to keep possessions alive, swatting it out of the Gators’ hands.
“His energy and his activity brings a whole different dynamic to this team,” Fredrick said. “… There are so many things that impact winning, and he does a lot of things that a lot of us cannot do. And it helps us win. … He changes the game for us.”
Daimion Collins played just five minutes, but he had a tip-ball steal — and drew a foul on the ensuing fast break — that had Calipari jumping up and down with delight. The sophomore forward hit two huge free throws in the final minute. When he left the court, his coach embraced him.
And Wheeler, who has accepted a bench role after leading the Southeastern Conference in assists the past two seasons, zipped around the court and played at the speed that Calipari wanted for his Cats. He had eight points, three assists and zero turnovers in 26 minutes. Calipari noted that he also stepped to the side and let Wallace — the freshman who replaced him in the starting lineup — do his thing in crucial moments.
“That’s a teammate,” the UK coach said proudly.
And with Tshiebwe and Reeves struggling, Jacob Toppin turned in 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“He did some good stuff,” Calipari said. “Let me just say, folks, this was a heck of a win for us.”
A team still on the NCAA Tournament bubble, Kentucky needs all the wins it can get.
To get one without much offense from its two leading scorers is a positive sign for the future.
Tshiebwe, who did have 15 rebounds, was hounded around the basket and fouled out for the first time since his first game of the season. Reeves was beaten badly on a few backdoor cuts, and Calipari took him out.
UK won anyway. And until the final few minutes, the Cats largely controlled the game.
“A lot of teams think we have to play through Oscar, but tonight we showed that we don’t have to play through him,” Toppin said. “He still did a lot of things that helped us win the game, but obviously he was struggling offensively — so we had to find other ways to score, find other ways to penetrate the defense and kick for open shots. And that’s what we did.”
Arkansas at Kentucky
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Arkansas 16-7 (5-5 SEC), Kentucky 16-7 (7-3)
Series: Kentucky leads 33-13
Last meeting: Arkansas won 75-73 on Feb. 26, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark.
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