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    Clayton, Gators Shock Wildcats at Rupp

    LEXINGTON, Ky. – About 45 minutes before the bus pulled out of the team hotel Wednesday night, Florida assistant Kevin Hovde shot his boss a text. It was short, but encapsulated the quiet confidence that seemed collectively to have overtaken the Gators after surviving what could have been a devastating loss four days earlier against Georgia.  

    Todd Golden‘s cell phone buzzed with the message that reflected exactly what UF players and coaches were thinking. Better put, what they were believing.  


    It is time. I really believe that. The program is ready to win a game like this.


    A little over four hours later, the Gators had buzzed to one of their most significant victories in years. 


    Junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. scored 23 points, raining seven treys on the Kentucky Wildcats, including one to send the game to overtime and a second to surge his team in front for good, as UF upset the nation’s 10th-ranked team 94-91 at sold-out Rupp Arena for a fourth consecutive win and just the 12throad victory in the 97-year history of the series.


    In a game that featured a staggering 15 ties and 29 lead changes, the Gators (15-6, 5-3) rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit and – after a see-sawing second half – from four down with less than 20 seconds to play to pull out the biggest road victory of Golden’s two seasons, while also laying claim to the season’s first Quadrant 1 win, as recognized by the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) system that seeds the NCAA Tournament. 


    UF, which had lost 10 of the previous 11 games against UK, had not beaten a top-10 ranked opponent on the road since 2003. 


    “We’ve been knocking on the door for a win like this,” Golden said. “This team is really coming together at the right time.”


    Clayton, the transfer from Iona, went seven of 13 from the 3-point line and also had two big free throws in overtime. UF’s two grad-transfers, point guard Zyon Pullin and forward Tyrese Samuel, were terrific, as well. Pullin tallied 21 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals (with just one turnover) over 41-plus minutes. Samuel had his ninth double-double of the season with 22 points and 13 rebounds, plus four blocked shots. 


    All three were playing their first game at Rupp. The Gators began the day 11-55 when playing the Cats in the Commonwealth.


    “It didn’t phase us too much,” Pullin said. 

    Grad-transfer point guard Zyon Pullin (0), here working against UK’s Reed Sheppard (15), went 6-for-14 from the floor, made his lone 3-point attempt, went 8-for-9 from the free throw lone to go with seven rebounds and seven assists.

    No it didn’t. Neither did the Wildcats (15-6, 5-3), who the Gators played down to the wire in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams Jan. 6. That day, UK came back from 11 down in the first half and from seven behind with 12 minutes to hand UF an 87-85 defeat. The Gators had been kicking themselves over that one ever since. 
    “We’d been thinking about this one as a get-back,” Samuel said. “And we had belief.”
    They needed it, especially after falling behind by 10 points late in the first half. Rupp seemed on edge for an eruption, but the Gators stared down the threat and showed nothing but poise the rest of the way. 

    Kentucky was led by a game-high 24 points from freshman guard Reed Sheppard, who was making his second start of the season. Sheppard knocked down 10 of his 18 shots, with three 3s, to go with eight rebounds six assists and two blocks while playing the entire 45 minutes. Seven-foot sophomore center Ugonna Onyenso, in his first career start, had 13 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks. 


    The two were summoned to the starting lineup because point guard D.J. Wagner (ankle) and wing Justin Edwards (leg) were sidelined with injuries.


    “We needed a couple of subs and we didn’t have them,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But I’m proud of how our guys fought.” 


    Tyrese Samuel (4) on defense vs UK’s Tre Mitchell

    The players UK did have (very good ones, by the way) put the Wildcats in position to control the game in the first half. They went on a 12-1 run while the Gators were missing nine consecutive field goals to fall back 41-31 with just over a minute to go in the first half. Pullin, though, snapped the cold spell with a 3-pointer with 46 seconds left and Will Richard hit a layup 20 seconds later to cut that 10-point margin in half before the break. That little bit of momentum carried over.


    UF scored the first six points out of the locker room – Pullin with an old-time 3-point play and Richard with a regular one – to go ahead 42-41 barely 90 seconds into the period. Over the next 15 minutes neither team led by more than three points (UK did so, but just once) until Kentucky fifth-year senior guard Antonio Reeves (19 points) dropped a go-ahead floater to break a 77-all tie with just inside three minutes to go and. After Clayton had his 3-point attempt blocked by Sheppard, Reeves hit two free throws with 1:51 to go take a four-point edge, the largest by either team. 

    That’s when the Gators banded together. 


    “Big shots, big rebounds and big stops down the stretch,” Samuel said.


    Yes, that’s what happened next. 


    An offensive rebound and stickback by Samuel at UF’s end was followed by one from Onyenso with 40 seconds remaining, taking the lead back to four. When Samuel had his post-up move blocked by Onyenso, he stayed with the play, grabbed the rebound and put the ball in the basket to cut the lead to two with 15.7 remaining.


    The Gators fouled freshman guard Rob Dillingham (20 points, 4 assists) with 13.5 seconds left. Dillingham made the first, but bounced the second, leaving the lead at three and the Gators moving into the halfcourt. 


    Calipari opted not to foul. 


    “If we’re going to foul with that much time against a really good rebounding team, it’s just dangerous,” Calipari said. “I would rather play it out.” 


    That was good for the Gators. Pullin probed into the lane and got double-teamed. He tossed a pass to Clayton shaded left at the top of the key and guarded tightly by Sheppard, who blocked Clayton’s previous shot. This time, Clayton ball-faked the freshman off the floor, side-stepped and coolly nailed the game-tying shot with only three seconds to go. 


    “They’re a little young, and they were jumping at a lot of shot fakes for me – using my pump fake, letting them pass me and getting the shot off,” Clayton said. “Shoutout to my teammates, especially ZP, just finding me in my spot.”


    In the overtime, it was sophomore guard Riley Kugel (8 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists), his team trailing by one, who found Clayton with 1:40 to go. Clayton’s seventh 3 of the game gave the Gators an 89-87 lead. The Cats misfired on their next three offensive trips, allowing the Gators, who went 8-for-9 from the line in the OT, to go up by seven with 16 seconds to go and close out a monster win for Golden’s program.  


    “Me and the guys have been saying all year it’s us versus us,” Clayton said. “We know what we’re capable of and tonight we came out and showed that.”

    Walter Clayton Jr. (1) is escorted off the floor by Jack May and other happy Gators following his Rupp-silencing performance. 

    What was it that Hovde texted? Oh yeah.
    It was time. 
    “We’re making strides, heading in the right direction and have the right guys in the program,” Golden said. “We’re just really excited to see where the rest of the year goes.”




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