Nail-biter, heartbreaker: Florida edges short-handed Wildcats in OT

Published 8:40 am Thursday, February 1, 2024

Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t mince words after a 94-91 loss to Florida on Wednesday night.

“This stinks, folks,” the Kentucky coach said before taking questions from reporters following the overtime setback.

The 10th-ranked Wildcats (15-5, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) blew a four-point lead with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, made one of two free throws with 13.5 seconds remaining, a missed attempt that could have sealed the deal. In the extra period, Kentucky failed to score for two minutes, giving Florida a path to secure its fourth straight victory.

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“This was a fun game to watch, it was not a fun game to coach,” Calipari said. “To watch the game and how the guys went at each other and it was a wide-open kind of game.

“They broke us down. Their guard was able to jump over our guards and I thought we found a couple jump shooters again. That’s four points in a game like that. That is huge.”

Kentucky edged the Gators 87-85 on Jan. 6 in Gainesville, but couldn’t duplicate the performance on its home court. The Wildcats were without freshmen starters D.J. Wagner (ankle) and Justin Edwards (knee). Reed Sheppard and Ugonna Onyenso started in place of Wagner and Edwards.

“I’m proud of how the kids fought short-handed,” Calipari said. “They’re a good team, just like South Carolina. South Carolina is a good team. This league is good.”

As an added burden on the Wildcats, the extended contest featured 29 lead changes and 15 ties. Kentucky did what it could to slow down the Gators with 14 blocked shots, including eight by Onyenso, but Florida made 12 shots from long range, including seven by Walter Clayton. His three with 1:42 remaining in the extra period sparked a 6-0 run that gave Florida the lead for good.

Onyenso finished with a career-high 13 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocked shots.

“He played,” Calipari said. “That’s why I left him in (was because of) the way he played and the way some of our other guys played. You need to win that game. We just needed a couple stops.”

Sheppard, making his first start since an 80-73 loss to UNC-Wilmington on Dec. 2, led the Wildcats with 24 points and added six assists.

Along with Sheppard, Rob Dillingham also gave Kentucky a lift off the bench in the absence of Wagner and Edwards. Dillingham, who sat out the Wildcats’ 63-57 win at Arkansas Saturday because of illness, finished with 20 points and scored eight of those in the opening half. Dillingham sank two 3-pointers, both in back-to-back fashion.

Calipari said the contest was similar to an 87-85 win by his squad on Jan. 6 in Gainesville, only this time the roles were reversed between two evenly matched teams.

Florida coach Todd Golden agreed.

“It was a heck of a game,” Golden said. “Very similar to the game in our gym. They built a lead on us in the first half and the opposing team was resilient and kept battling and didn’t let the home team off the hook.”

The Gators (15-6, 5-3) outscored the Wildcats 10-7 in overtime and improved to 3-0 in games played past regulation this season.