Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win over the Florida Gators

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 72-67 win over the Florida Gators on Saturday night at Rupp Arena:

1. Kentucky did not need a big night from Oscar Tshiebwe

In Saturday’s significant win over the Gators, John Calipari’s team ran its SEC win streak to six, beat a team that was ranked No. 8 in adjusted defensive efficiency via Ken Pomeroy’s numbers machine and, maybe most important of all, proved it could win a key game despite Oscar Tshiebwe having an off night.

A way off night. Last season’s national player of the year was just 2-for-14 from the floor on the way to scoring all of four points. The offensive output matched Tshiebwe’s season-low in the 78-52 spanking the Cats took at Alabama back on Jan. 7.

Unlike that trouncing in Tuscaloosa, the Cats were able to overcome the lack of production from their leading scorer on the season. Cason Wallace scored 20 points, including some key buckets down the stretch. Jacob Toppin added a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds. And CJ Fredrick scored 12 points to break out of his shooting slump.

It should be noted that Oscar did contribute to the cause with 15 rebounds. And while Florida Coach Todd Golden claimed the Gators did not double-team UK’s center — Golden credited Florida center Colin Castleton as being one of the best defensive big men in the country — Tshiebwe did command plenty of attention from Florida defenders.

“We just wanted to be as aggressive as possible,” said the 6-foot-11 Castleton, who came in the game third in the nation in blocked shots per game (3.1). “He’s super effective around the rim, one of the most active guys in the country. I just wanted to use my length.”

Kentucky won anyway.

“Being able to play basketball not through him for once and being able to win a game it just shows what type of team we are,” Toppin said. “He got a little down on himself and I had to pick him up and tell him, ‘You’re not going to be great every night.’ He understands that.”

Kentucky now understands it can win without Oscar being Oscar.

2. Cason Wallace is cool as a cucumber

Be it that we are now into February, we know that Cason Wallace is no longer a freshman even though he is a freshman. Actually, he’s never played like a freshman, even though he’s a freshman. From day one, the 6-foot-4 Dallas native has shown a maturity and consistency not often seen in first-year college players.

Saturday night, against the Gators, that maturity surfaced when it counted most. After Florida had sliced Kentucky’s lead to 61-56 with 3:36 remaining, it was Wallace who jumped up and buried a three-pointer that 2:48 mark to push the home team’s lead back to eight.

“I didn’t know it was that big of a shot until after the game,” he said.

When the Gators had crept within 66-62, it was Wallace who scored off a drive at the 1:15 mark. And when Florida was fouling at the end, it was Wallace who calmly stepped to the line and made both of his free throws to seal the deal.

“I had missed the front end (of a bonus) before that,” Toppin said. “So when he got fouled, I was like, ‘Cason, please make these free throws. And he did.’”

In fact, the Cats were 11 of 13 at the foul line for the night.

“We’ve been working on that,” said Wallace, who after missing the Ole Miss game with a bruised knee scored 20 points in the win over the Gators.

Kentucky’s Cason Wallace, right, blocks a shot by Florida’s Will Richard during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky’s Cason Wallace, right, blocks a shot by Florida’s Will Richard during Saturday’s game at Rupp Arena.

3. Here comes another conference challenge on Tuesday

Calipari in his postgame presser: “This was a big win for us.”

It was a big win. Like the Cats, Florida came into the game 6-3 in conference play. Its three SEC losses were by a combined eight points. And, last but certainly not least, the Gators had just knocked off No. 2-ranked Tennessee 67-54 on Wednesday night in Gainesville.

And what do the Cats get for beating the Gators? Two days before another SEC team with momentum comes to town.

“They don’t stop coming,” Calipari said. “We’ve got another tough one on Tuesday.”

The Arkansas Razorbacks come to Rupp for a 9 p.m. start on ESPN. After a 1-5 start in SEC play, the Razorbacks have won four straight league games, including a 65-63 squeaker at South Carolina on Saturday.

Injuries have messed with Arkansas’ season, but Jalen Graham came off the bench to score 16 points and Davonte Davis added 15 as Eric Musselman’s team avoided an upset in Columbia. Arkansas is now 16-7 overall and 5-5 in league play.

Meanwhile, Kentucky improved to 7-3 in the conference with Saturday’s triumph. The Cats are now tied with Auburn for fourth place in the SEC standings behind Alabama (10-0), Tennessee (8-2) and Texas A&M (8-2).

Tuesday will be the first of two meetings with Arkansas. Kentucky travels to Fayetteville for the regular-season finale on March 4.

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