By Kevin Faris
“It was a great college basketball game and a great college basketball night.”
-UK Head Coach Tubby Smith
Major League Baseball may be the National Pastime. The NFL may have the most viewers and the highest ratings. The NBA may have “The Next Big Thing” in Yao Ming. But there is a reason that college basketball has been and always will be the number one sport here in the Bluegrass. University of Kentucky basketball is celebrating 100 years of unparalleled dominance in hoops and judging from the beatdown they put on number one-ranked University of Florida, they do not appear to be slowing down.
This game is the reason Kentuckians love college basketball. The Gators were the first number one-ranked team to play against the Wildcats in Rupp Arena since 1979, when Indiana came to town, and for the record, lost. From the moment this weekend, when Arizona and Pittsburgh lost, everyone in Lexington knew, and hoped, that Florida would ascend to the top spot. What is better than beating Florida? Beating Florida a little more than 24 hours after they achieved the first number one ranking in basketball in the history of their school.
If it is possible, the 70-55 final score does not fully tell the story of how bad Kentucky beat up and embarrassed this Florida team. Florida was outhustled, outplayed, and outcoached. There were times in the second half that UK stretched their lead to 30 points and there were several times when it appeared that the Gators just quit. What was great about this game? What was not great about this game?
The oft-maligned Rupp Arena crowd knew this was a big game. The usual criticism of the “old blue hairs” sitting on their hands was thrown out the window. The new Rupp record crowd of 24,459 knew this was a big game and they were making sure that Florida realized that when it comes to SEC basketball, they were now in the king’s palace. They stood. They cheered. They screamed. And that was before the game even started. From beginning to end, the crowd was so electric that people in the lower arena were calling their friends and just holding up their cell phones. If you cannot be there in person, the best you can do is soak it up via the good folks at Sprint and AT&T. The pandemonium was so widespread where I was watching the game, that a moratorium had to be called on the host giving high fives, due to the number of sore hands.
The crowd set the tone and players picked up the baton from there. Chuck Hayes was all over the court Tuesday night, tearing through and knocking around Florida players like an old school Reggie White throwing around an offensive lineman. If the ball was on the floor, Chuck was not far behind. Keith Bogans and Gerald Fitch hit three after three. Hey, I thought this team could not shoot? Fitch and Bogans outscored the Gators in the first half all by themselves. When the game was over, UK had not only 70 points, but 19 assists.
While the offense was nice, since the Vanderbilt game this Wildcat team has been all about defense. In SEC play, they have held opponents to 57 points and in the first half they played, according to ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale, the best defense he has seen in 10 years. The vaunted Florida Gator offense was held to 6-31 from the field in the first half. They scored one field goal in the final 13:50. With 35 seconds left, Vitale announced that he was going to have to find something else to talk about, because this game was over. As UK’s domination poured into the second half, the only words the talking heads for ESPN could use to describe the Gator effort was “embarrassing.” The defense was so amazing, it almost seemed like the Wildcats were going to be personally offended if a ball went through the basket. The Gators had what can only be called the SEC Midas effect, everything they touched turned into UK points. Senior guard Brett Nelson hustled to save a ball out of bounds, underneath the UK basket, and flipped it right to UK point guard Cliff Hawkins for an easy layup. Unfortunately, that did not count toward Florida’s meager total of 6 assists. It seemed, on several occasions, that Florida Head Coach Billy Donovan, was going to cry.
This is why the Faithful love their Wildcats. This is why the Big Blue Mist continues to settle over whatever gymnasium the Wildcats play in. When a challenge is issued in Rupp Arena, everyone comes together. “That why they call it a home court advantage,” said Hayes. The last time a high-ranked team came to town, 1999’s number two Maryland squad, then UK center Jamaal Magloire stated “Nobody works harder than we do.” The same holds true today. The crowd let it all hang out. The players left it all on the floor. When Tubby began to take the starters out with about two minutes left, they did not simply go and sit down. Bogans, Fitch, Hayes, Hawkins, Camara, Estill, and Daniels were all up and cheering; waving their towels and screaming encouragement to the five on the floor. Another pretender to the throne came into the castle of college basketball attempting to stake their claim, only to learn that UK basketball is not simply the players on the floor. It is the players on the bench, the coaches and staff, the 24,000 plus in the crowd, the students at the university, and the children wearing UK jerseys dreaming of one day suiting up. UK basketball is the players that came before, it is the millions and millions of fans crowded around televisions and radios all across the world channeling their love and support. If you want to beat that, you better bring a whole hell of a lot to the table. Florida thought they were ready to sit atop the throne of the SEC. Not today Gators. And not tomorrow. Now and forever, college basketball reigns supreme in the Commonwealth, and UK is its king.