Kentucky rolled into Gainesville on a five-game winning streak that had the Wildcats soaring like an ill-begotten field goal attempt, launched in the general vicinity of the top shot-blocker in the country. And the Florida Gators swatted them down, the way Nerlens Noel has rejected so many jumpers, floaters and runners.
They never had a chance. And now, for the time being anyway, they don’t have Noel.
As the freshman center crumpled to the floor in agony, screaming in pain, the Big Blue Nation hoped for the best but feared the worst. They saw the reigning, four-time SEC Freshman of the Week slam into a basket support, suffering some kind of horrifying knee injury that forced even the Gator fans to fall silent.
At the very least a hyper-extension, a Florida player later said it looked as though Noel had dislocated it. It’s pointless to speculate without the benefit of proper medical information and opinion, but this much we know: With or without Noel, the Wildcats were not ready for what awaited them in the O’Connell Center on Tuesday night.
The 69-52 loss was the worst conference setback in the John Calipari era at UK.
Much the way Kentucky dismantled Florida in Rupp Arena that night in 2003 when the Gators earlier in the day had been voted number one in the country for the first time, Florida skewered a UK squad that had inched its way back into the Top 25 in the final slot available. It might be a while before the voters see fit to include the Cats again.
South Carolina coach Frank Martin had said it on the weekly coaches’ teleconference, and John Calipari had confirmed it – the way to beat Florida is with solid guard play. The UK coach also quipped that it would be helpful for the Wildcats to hit nine of their first 10 shots, the way Arkansas did when the Razorbacks dismantled the Gators.
Neither happened for Kentucky.
The Cats did get off to a decent start, slipping out to a 4-0 lead and jousting successfully with the Gators in the opening minutes. But as UK’s guard play began to falter, Florida began to heat up. Ryan Harrow gave way to Jarrod Polson, and Archie Goodwin gave way to bad habits.
Soft on defense and uninspiring on offense, Harrow found himself tattooed to the bench once again, the same way he was in the Auburn game. Only this time, Polson was overmatched. The Gators attacked him when Kentucky had the ball and exposed him defensively.
Goodwin forced shots, drew offensive fouls and launched a desperate three-pointer that barely drew iron. He was part of a UK offense that, thanks to Florida’s aggressive defense, never found a rhythm.
The Gators, on the other hand, looked as though they had been preparing for a week for the nationally-televised contest. As usual, the Wildcats drew a packed house; in fact, one UK beat reporter said he overheard someone in the crowded media room prior to the game say, “Last week there was nobody here.”
The reporters in that crowded room made their way courtside for what quickly devolved into a blood-letting, one that turned incredibly sober when Noel went down.
It was a somber, frightening incident made ugly by the taunts of one female Florida fan, who, according to Matt May of the Cats’ Pause, repeatedly chanted, “Karma’s a bitch, number three!” as Noel writhed in pain. When she realized how seriously he’d been hurt, she reportedly said, “Now, I feel bad.” No take-backs with something like that. It’s hard to un-ring that bell.
And it’s even harder to imagine where this Kentucky team is now, having undone virtually all the hard work it has put in over the last three weeks, fashioning that winning streak. Beating the also-rans in the SEC is one thing but when it came time to measure themselves against what is clearly the class of the league, the Wildcats were found woefully wanting.
And now they’re without their best player, who, in a sad bit of irony, went down as he was hustling, going all-out to try to block a Gator layup with his team trying to get the deficit into single digits.
Noel was taken to a Gainesville hospital for tests before flying back with the team. "I'm physically sick right now," Calipari said. "What I'm hoping is it's not the extreme. I'm hoping it's some sort of twist but we don't know."
If that, indeed, was Noel’s final play as a Wildcat this season, it’s only fitting that he went down fighting. It’s time to see if it inspires his teammates. They need it.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 24th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)