Who says the SEC isn't a basketball conference? The best early game on Semi-Final Saturday came out of the football conference as No. 1 Kentucky absorbed every punch Billy Donovan's Florida Gators could throw. The Wildcats showed why they are the best team in the nation with a 74-71 victory over a Gators team that looked a lot better than their 23-9 record (10-6 in the SEC).
It doesn't get any better than this one: a high-octane see-saw affair with enough highlights to fill a week's worth of top 10s. Florida hit 11 three-pointers, shooting 50 from outside the arc and 48 from the floor in a fast-paced game reminiscent of Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV. The Gators would have beaten almost any other team in the country (certainly any other team in the SEC) by double digits.
But Kentucky played like a team of destiny, with all five starters finishing in double digits: Doron Lamb with 16, Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis, and Marquis Teague with 15 each, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with 10. It was an extraordinary performance: the polar opposite of the lethargic win the Wildcats had on Friday against LSU, a game where the Tigers banged the bruised the Cats until midway through the second half.
Teague was the biggest turnaround. Against LSU the freshman point guard looked like John Calipari's weak link. He had trouble running the offense, letting the shot clock wind down to single digits before forcing a play, and he turned the ball over far too often. Less than 24 hours later, Teague played like a man inspired. He went six for nine from the floor and four for six from the foul line, none more critical than the two free throws he made with 14 seconds left to give the Cats a four-point lead.
"He and I met last night in my room," Calipari said of Teague. "I just called him in and told him, you can't play to score because that hurts our team. You have to pick your spots and score in transition. But you got a team that you need to get involved in this. And it's hard. It's hard playing point guard for us."
If anyone believed point guard was a Kentucky weakness that could be exploited, Teague dispelled that myth in New Orleans on Saturday afternoon. And his coach noticed.
"He was outstanding," Cal said. "The other guys, they get the ball, they're trying to put it in the basket. He's got to run us; he's got to call the offense. Again, he's a young freshman. He's a young youngster. But he's got a toughness to him. He's got an edge to him. I felt very comfortable with him going to that foul line late."
This is the game Kentucky needed against the kind of opponent they are likely to face from here on out: hungry, determined, and playing far, far above their grade.
"Every team we play from here on out is going to be desperate," Calipari said. "Our guys have to know that and be ready for it."
Florida's first two outings against the Cats weren't close: a 78-58 blowout in Lexington and a 74-59 affair in Gainesville. Neither team was going to change their seeding in the NCAA Tournament (Kentucky will go in as the overall No. 1 and Florida as a No. 5), but from the level of play, you would have thought they were fighting for a spot in the Final Four.
"We know people are going to give us their best shot every game, especially coming down to tournament time," Teague said. "So it really doesn't matter how much you win by. We just want to make sure we get a win. That's the only thing that matters."
For the next three weeks, getting wins is, indeed, all that counts. Calipari knows it. And after today, it looks like every member of his team knows it as well. They also know that they will bring out the best in every opponent they face from here on out.