For nine minutes, it was going so well. Kentucky started this game like the team we’d started to believe in, sprinting out to a 13-5 lead and leading Florida by ten with 10:52 to go until halftime. From there, it unraveled.
The Gators’ zone completely stymied the Cats, who turned into the old versions of themselves, playing hot potato around the perimeter, too tentative to drive the lane. Key players made key errors and the offense stalled, and once again, an opportunity was lost. Despite late-game heroics by Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin, Kentucky lost the game 71-67, falling to 8-14 on the season, 7-8 in conference play. The double-bye at the SEC Tournament is probably out of reach, which really stings because all of the dominos the Cats needed to fall their way for that to happen today did. Ugh.
With two games left until the SEC Tournament, it’s “back to the drawing board,” as John Calipari said to end his press conference. Let’s talk about it.
Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin did their part
Two players who do not deserve criticism are Davion Mintz and Jacob Toppin, who kept the Cats alive in the final stretch. On his Senior Day (that may not really be a Senior Day), Mintz finished with a team-high 21 points on 7-14 shooting. He was only 2-9 from three, but one of those threes helped pad Kentucky’s lead after an 8-0 Florida run in the first half. Mintz and Toppin scored ten of Kentucky’s final 12 points, with Toppin hitting four straight free throws to put Kentucky up with 6:30 left. Toppin only had two field goals, but they were spectacular: a three at the 13:11 mark give Kentucky the lead and this ridiculous putback dunk with 3:46 left.
TOPPIN WITH THE THUNDER pic.twitter.com/nRma0o7MDx
— CBS Sports CBB (@CBSSportsCBB) February 27, 2021
Mintz and Toppin also missed shots in the end — notably, a would-be dagger for Mintz with 1:02 left — but they’re not the reason Kentucky lost tonight. Hopefully we get to see both of them next season.
Isaiah Jackson being in foul trouble was a game-changer
What would this game’s outcome have been if Isaiah Jackson wasn’t in foul trouble? The super-freak freshman played only 16 minutes due to fouls, but he made those minutes count, scoring 11 points (4-4 FG, 3-4 FT), grabbing five rebounds, and blocking three shots. With little working on offense, Kentucky desperately needed Jackson on both ends for easy buckets, boards, and blocks. He led the team in plus/minus efficiency at +8. Like all season, foul trouble is his Achilles’ Heel.
Devin Askew and Keion Brooks really struggled
It’s really hard to win when two of your key players can’t stop making mistakes. Both Devin Askew and Keion Brooks turned the ball over three times, leading to the Cats’ abysmal 7-15 assist-to-turnover ratio. Askew finished with one point on 0-5 from the floor, 1-2 from the free throw line, three assists, three turnovers, and a steal in 30 minutes. Brooks was 1-5 from the floor, 2-2 from the free throw line for four points, four rebounds, three turnovers, and a block. His plus/minus efficiency was a team-worst -14.
“We had some bad play, individual bad play today and that happens,” Calipari said afterward. “They’re not machines. They’re not robots. We had a couple guys play one of their worst games, no energy.”
In case there was any doubt, one of the players he was referencing was Brooks.
“Really surprising,” Cal said when asked about Brooks’ play. “I have no idea. He lost one ball and then did not sprint back and let them dunk a ball when the guys was three steps behind him when they both took off. But, I’m going to say this. I love him. He’s played great for us. They’re not machines. They’re not robots. But he was not very good today.”
Speaking of that turnover he mentioned…
A 1:16 stretch that spelled doom
As mentioned, Kentucky was riding high early, hitting seven of its first eleven field goals, but hit a wall of its own making around the nine-minute mark. Three different Cats (Toppin, Sarr, Brooks) turned it over on consecutive possessions, allowing Florida to go on an 8-0 run in the span of 1:16, which turned a ten-point lead into a two-point lead. I don’t doubt that the Gators would have made another run later on, but that was some big momentum lost.
Eight points in just over a minute. Sheesh.
What was that final play?
Despite everything, Kentucky had a chance to win it at the end. Down two with 37 seconds remaining, the Cats attempted a pick-and-pop for Davion Mintz, but Devin Askew couldn’t get him the ball so he threw it to Olivier Sarr, who rushed a three at the shot clock buzzer. It didn’t work. Unfortunately, Sarr missed what could have been a game-winner and it wasn’t really even his fault.
A golden opportunity lost
I thought we were past the point of Kentucky throwing away opportunities, but apparently not. The Cats getting a double bye at the SEC Tournament — meaning they’d have to only win three games in a row instead of four to get an automatic bid — was within grasp today thanks to a number of unlikely outcomes. First, Sharife Cooper-less Auburn beat Tennessee. Then, Arkansas knocked off LSU. Finally, the most improbable of them all, Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss, laying the double bye in front of the Cats like a golden egg. Sadly, Kentucky just turned that opportunity over, meaning they’ll be playing Thursday in Nashville, which isn’t so bad depending on the draw, but winning three in a row is easier than winning four in a row, especially when this group hasn’t done that all season.