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March 9, 2013

Cats rally past Florida to pick up critical win

For John Calipari, it was something of a throwback.

The Kentucky coach stalked the sideline of the underdog Saturday at Rupp Arena, his team fighting for its postseason life and facing one of the nation's of the nation's top teams.

Calipari's players now are more highly thought-of by high school recruiting services and NBA scouts than they were back in the day. But for one afternoon, at least, his Wildcats played the way his teams used to.

They gritted their teeth and grinded their way to a 61-57 win against No. 11 Florida, bolstering their floundering NCAA Tournament hopes at a rowdy Rupp Arena.

"Those are my old school teams," Calipari said. "That's my UMass teams. That's how we played. You're laughing, but it is. We gutted it out and we defend you. Then we figure out a way of trying to win it at the end."

On Saturday, the Cats solved that puzzle not with offense â€" UK shot 39.3 percent and went without a field goal in the game's final 4:48 â€" but with a defensive effort that held the 11th-ranked Gators without a point in the final 7:33.

Kentucky (21-10, 12-6 Southeastern Conference) scored the game's final 11 points, rallying from a 57-50 deficit for a win that helped the Cats clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament and provided a much-needed quality win for their NCAA Tournament resume.

"I think we're in (the NCAA Tournament)," guard Archie Goodwin said. "I don't know what those committee guys are thinking about, but they better put us in there."

If the Cats get in without winning the SEC Tournament, they'll be able to point to Saturday as a reason why.

Less than two full days after losing a critical game at Georgia, Kentucky was faced with what the Cats called a do-or-die game against the Gators (24-6, 14-4), who entered Saturday's game still with a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

On Friday, Calipari compared his team to a drowning man.

"They swam like heck, Calipari said Saturday. "In the last seven minutes, when it was in doubt, they swam like heck."

On Friday, Calipari gave each of his players two tasks, two things the team needed them to do against Florida. One by one, the Cats stood in front of their teammates and read those requests.

"He told us if we did those things then we'll win," said senior Julius Mays, who had 13 points and two clinching free throws with 9.4 seconds to play. "For the most part guys did those things. We had a little spell where it looked like we were going to let go of the rope but guys came in made some big plays."

That spell came with Florida leading 57-50 after a Scottie Wilbekin three-pointer at the 7:33 mark of the second half. The Cats followed that with three straight turnovers, but the Gators couldn't build on the lead.

A Goodwin free throw at the 5:34 mark trimmed the lead to six, and he followed with a bucket in the paint and a breakaway dunk that brought the crowd to life and cut the lead to 57-55 with 4:48 to play.

A pair of Ryan Harrow free throws tied the game at 57-57, and UK took the lead for good on a Willie Cauley-Stein free throw with 3:03 to play.

Kentucky scored its final six points from the free-throw line. It hardly was a glamorous way to win. But it was gritty. As Calipari said, it was old-school.

"I didn't even know he said that, but from what he tells us, his old teams were very gritty and grimy and they just worked hard," Goodwin said. "They willed their way to wins. If that's the way we have to do it, that's just the way we have to do it."


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