Lexington, Ky. -- Jodie Meeks was uncharacteristically missing. Nick Calathes was characteristically hitting everything.
And when everything was going against the Wildcats' favor – a six-point deficit with 4:26 to go, an injured Patrick Patterson on the bench and 19 turnovers – Meeks turned the Wildcats' fortunes and snapped a three-game losing streak with one season-changing swish.
Meeks scored 10 points in the last 3:06 of the game, nailing a fade away, off-balanced 3-pointer with Calathes in his face and 4.7 seconds to go. Florida's Nick Calathes pulled up for a desperation 3-pointer on the other end and got fouled, but a season-high crowd of 24,355 fans at Rupp Arena shook the rafters with noise and Calathes, for the first time basically all game, came up short and missed three free throws at the line
Somehow, despite a midseason slump, UK (17-7, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) put itself firmly back in the SEC title hunt with a 68-65 thrilling victory over Florida (19-5, 6-3 SEC) at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night.
“We just wanted to make sure that the guy that probably had the greatest chance to score for us at least had a good chance to do something with it. We told him to dribble to the left and shoot an off-balanced shot," UK Coach Billy Gillispie jokingly said. "It was probably a lucky shot, but I really do believe that sometimes you deserve something every once in a while.”
Maybe UK did deserve this one, even if it wasn't always pretty. Gillispie could probably point to a number of reasons why UK could have lost Tuesday night: Calathes was unstoppable with a career-high 33 points, Patterson sprained his right ankle and didn't come off the bench the last nine-plus minutes, and for most of the game Meeks, believe it or not, was struggling from behind the arc.
But for the last two weeks, Gillispie has said that winning or losing, it all came down to the Wildcats' toughness and hard work. They anwered with what Gillispie said was the best 40 minutes of the season.
“That's as tough as we've played in a long time,” Gillispie said. “I don't think we've played tougher than that all year.”
The defining moment might have come during a 10-0 Florida run late in the second half. A layup by Calathes put the Gators up 60-54, forcing Gillispie to call a timeout.
Without Patterson and with the help of UK's supporting cast and Meeks, UK outscored Florida 14-5 the rest of the way. The Wildcats got points down the stretch from sophomore Josh Harrellson and freshman Darius Miller, but Meeks' shot proved to be the biggest.
After Florida's Dan Werner missed one of two free throws, the game was deadlocked at 65-65. When the Wildcats couldn't find anything, Gillispie called a timeout and put the ball in his best player's hands.
“Coach Gillispie called a play where he wanted me to go get the ball,” Meeks said. “I tried to make the best of the opportunity I had. I thought it was going in but I took a step back because my left calf had a cramp so I was trying to get the shot off as quickly as I could. I double pumped and luckily I made it. God was on my side when I hit that shot.”
Calathes, who torched the Wildcats for 33 points on 10-of-20 shooting, said he got a piece of the ball, but the last thing it hit was nothing but net.
But in a game where the largest lead was eight, it wasn't over. Calathes drove the length of the floor and forced a foul on Galloway with 0.6 seconds left.
Calathes had rarely missed all night – he was 10-of-20 from the floor and 11-of-12 from the charity stripe entering his final three free-throw attempts – but maybe UK really did deserve it. With the seventh-largest crowd in Rupp Arena history screaming and shouting, Calathes missed his last three free throws, albeit the last one intentionally.
“I have said many times that I don't know how anyone could have better fans in the world than we have here at Kentucky,” Gillispie said. “I know that it was a very exciting game last year on Senior Day but I don't know if I had heard them better in the time that I have been here. The thing about it is that we really needed them the most.”
And when they needed lifts earlier in the game, junior Kevin Galloway was the answer. In arguably his best game as a Wildcat, Galloway notched season highs with six points, eight rebounds and nine assists.
“As good as all those other guys did, Galloway was the major difference in the game,” Gillispie said.
Galloway was aggressive all night long, particularly in transition and driving to the hoop. When UK needed runs, Galloway, a junior-college transfer, provided the spark off the bench.
Trailing 43-37, Galloway ignited an 13-4 run with a pair of assists and a layup to cut the lead to one. If it wasn't for Meeks' game-winning 3-pointer, Galloway would have provided the highlight of the game when he raced down the lane midway through the second half and threw down a one-hand slam.
“The whole deal changed when Galloway came in,” Gillispie said. “I've never been a part of a game where one guy did it by the nature that he did it. I've had guys come in and really score in the paint, really make shots, really change the game defensively ... but just to force the action like he did, I haven't been a part of that.”
Even Gillispie said Galloway hasn't had many opportunities to play this season, but when he was given the opportunity, he made the most of it. He did so by attacking the basket and playing aggressive, Gillispie said.
“He made a lot of mistakes but we all make mistakes,” Gillispie said. “I don't like guys being scared and we've done way too much of that here lately. There is mistakes of commission, there is mistakes of omission. Galloway is much closer to being way out of control than he is being timid. I can live without of control, I can live with mistakes of commission but I have a hard time living with mistakes of omission. ... He just did it on his own and made a lot of plays for a lot of people including himself.”
Gillispie reiterated that UK never lost its confidence, whether it was in the three-game losing streak or during Tuesday's seesaw battle, but it's clear the confidence of Galloway and the confident shot of Meeks has put UK back in the SEC hunt.
“They're playing at the University of Kentucky,” Gillispie said. “You can't lose your confidence at the drop of a hat if you're good enough to play at the University of Kentucky.”