NEW ORLEANS -- Someone forgot to tell the SEC field it was supposed to lie down for its Wildcat overlords.
In a thrilling affair Saturday afternoon, the Florida Gators improved upon a trend LSU started in Friday's quarterfinals -- they pushed Kentucky to the very brink before falling short, 74-71, to the SEC regular-season champs.
This recent development is an unfamiliar one for a Wildcat squad that earned 12 of its perfect 16 SEC victories by double digits, but that's what happens in the postseason. The same Gator team that lost by 15 last week in Gainesville (and 20 last month in Lexington) came out white hot en route to a first-half lead that grew as large as 10 points.
Amazingly enough, the Gators stayed that way for the majority of a back-and-forth game, hitting Kentucky's smothering defense for 11 3-pointers and a team shooting percentage of 48.
"I don't know if that's happened all year. They shoot 50 percent, they make 11 3s," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "They defended, they were physical, they got us inside and we were fortunate to walk out."
Like LSU before them, the Gators refused to go away, even when the Wildcats wrested control of the game. Halfway through the second half, Kentucky went on what looked like a game-altering 14-0 run, fueled by seven points from Terrence Jones, to take a nine point lead. Despite the hole, Florida battled back and cut the lead down to two in the final minute.
"They made shots," said forward Anthony Davis. "In the first two meetings they wasn't making shots at all -- all the guards struggled. Coach Cal told us no team is going to struggle three times ... some guys got left open, and we broke down defensively a lot. But some shots, they just made. They had hot hands."
Two close wins leave Calipari with plenty to ponder ahead of the Wildcats' conference championship game appearance Sunday, and things to work on before Kentucky begins its NCAA tournament run. The Gators had a field day with the Kentucky defense, and not just from 3-point land. Bradley Beal and Erik Murphy hit everything in sight, and Patric Young battled Jones and Davis relentlessly in the post.
"Florida came out and just played real good offense just by switching and trying to pass out for 3s, and knocking them down," Jones said. "It's tough playing a team three times, and we really had to switch up our offense."
All that said, there's a more important message here than Kentucky playing like Cardiac Cats in the postseason: The Wildcats just took an NCAA tournament team's best shot (literally), and they weathered it.
Just like Friday against the Tigers, the young Wildcats stepped up when it looked like they might have an upset on their hands. Whether the production was looked for, (like Davis sinking an open 3 to give Kentucky a halftime lead), or more surprising (like Jones snapping out of a slump to lead the team's late surge), it always seemed to come when it was needed.
Jones, considered a veteran even as a sophomore on the Cats' young roster, said the freshmen are beginning to understand the necessity of clutch plays, even during the course of games.
"I think they're getting it while the game is going on and showing it by stepping up -- Anthony with a putback after a free throw, Marquis going to the line and knocking two down. I think they're getting it during the games," Jones said.
Point guard Marquis Teague embodied that mantra with a rebound performance to remember. Teague was the definition of a non-factor in the sloppy win against LSU. (He scored two points from the stripe and shot 0-of-5.) Against the Gators, he shined with 15 points and five assists. While Young and his teammates at times frustrated the Kentucky post players in an absurdly physical struggle under the paint, Teague had no trouble getting to the basket. The freshman cut through the defense time after time to shoot 67 percent on the day.
"It's hard playing point guard for us. It's hard in that position," Calipari said. "And like I told the team after, he was outstanding."
As an added bonus, Teague sank two free throws with 14 seconds remaining to give Kentucky a two-possession lead and clinch the win.
"It meant a lot," he said. "I wanted to step up to the line. I was confident ... I wanted to seal the win."
It was an intriguing turnaround for Teague, and for a team that acted almost as if it had lost following Friday's shaky win. It would be hard to blame the Wildcats for it, considering the last time (and only time) they tasted defeat was before Christmas.
But as they showed down the stretch against what would have to be considered Florida's best effort, the Wildcats are made of sterner stuff than that.