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On Friday UK head coach John Calipari compared his team’s predicament to a drowning man forced to swim or die.
When Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin hit a three-pointer with 7:36 remaining in Saturday to stretch the Gators’ lead to 57-50, the Wildcats metaphorical drowning man may have needed CPR.
Instead the Cats found their swimming ability, closing the game on an 11-0 run and holding the No. 11 Gators scoreless for the remainder of the game to earn a 61-57 win that kept their hopes for a NCAA Tournament at-large bid alive.
“In the last seven minutes, when it was in doubt, they swam like heck,” Calipari said. “When you’re going to drown, (if) you want to die, don’t swim. If you want to live, the life raft is over there. You got to swim to it. As a matter of fact, it’s kind of breezing away from you, so you’re going to have to swim real hard. And they did.”
Trailing 57-50 with 5:34 remaining, sophomore guard Archie Goodwin hit one of two free throws. Almost 30 seconds later he pulled the Cats within four with a jumper.
Goodwin tallied his fourth steal of the game on the ensuing Florida possession and converted it into a fast-break dunk to pull the Cats within two at 57-55 with 4:48 remaining.
“It was very big, I think, that run I went on,” Goodwin said. “That just fueled our team, because sometimes when things are going bleak, you have to have guys step up and make plays. That’s what I did.”
Two free throws from sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow with 4:07 remaining tied the game at 57. The Cats took the lead a minute later on a free throw from freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein.
Goodwin padded the lead with his own free throw with 25 seconds on the clock before senior guard Julius Mays iced the win by making both his free throws with nine seconds remaining.
“I’ve had a lot of big moments in my college career, but that one was probably my biggest one because we needed that win more than we needed anything to keep our hopes alive,” Mays said. “I told coach going into the timeout that I wanted the ball. He actually didn’t draw the play how I ran it, but I wanted that ball, and I wanted to shoot the free throws.”
The Wildcats led for much of the game behind a raucous crowd that Calipari described as “as loud as we’ve been in four years,” but foul trouble to Cauley-Stein let the Gators back into the contest.
The Cats built an eight-point lead out of the locker room, but Cauley-Stein picked up two fouls within a minute forcing him to the bench with 13:42 remaining. The Gators rattled off an 8-0 run with him on the bench to take a one-point lead.
Calipari then reinserted Cauley-Stein into the lineup with 11:15 remaining, and he played the rest of the way without picking up his fifth foul.
“Had no choice,” Calipari said of the decision to put Cauley-Stein back in the game. “I said, ‘I’m forgetting he has four.’ A basket doesn’t kill us. You fouling out can kill us.”
While the win versus Florida may not guarantee the Wildcats will earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, it certainly puts them in a better position than they were 24 hours earlier following a loss to lowly Georgia.
The victory also clinched a double-bye for the SEC tournament, meaning UK will only have to win three games to earn the league’s automatic bid.
After the game Calipari and players were confident the victory showed the team has put itself in position for an at-large bid or at least a run in the SEC tournament.
“The win today shows that we’re one of those teams,” Calipari said. “Got to go to the (SEC) tournament. One-game season againâ€¦With what this team has gone through, to finish second in the league is a pretty good deal. Proud of them.”