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By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A scary-looking knee injury left UK freshman Nerlens Noel biting his shirt, squirming on the floor and screaming in pain. His teammates carried him off the court, prayed for his well-being and sent him to the hospital to get checked by doctors.
“It’s unfortunate,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “We just hope and pray that he is OK.” It is tough to break down the lessons learned and where the Cats go from here without knowing Noel’s status.
Additionally, neither Calipari nor Noel’s teammates wanted to speculate on basketball life moving forward without the four-time consecutive SEC Freshman of the Week patrolling the middle.
“I’m not going to think about that,” Calipari said when asked about how the Cats would move forward if Noel can’t compete. “I’m worried about the kid right now.”
Noel wears jersey No. 3, so here are three additional items about the Cats’ 69-52 loss to the Gators Tuesday.
1. The Florida student section was loud, boisterous, obnoxious and scary. As they rhythmically bounced, the bleacher structure behind me jolted up and down with their movements, seemingly ready to topple at any moment.
Not only was I fearful for my life, I also needed windshield wipers. With every big Gator play, student section cheers brought saliva flying over me.
The one thing Gator fans are not is creative. The heckling ranged from “you suck” to “you’re ugly.”
One fan asked Ryan Harrow, “are you going to cry, Ryan?” Actually, that was sort of creative, but it was the only one that was.
The fans gave a rousing ovation to Noel as he was carried off the court and even gave the returning UK players cheers as well when they returned.
2. Calipari has been teaching life lessons. Tuesday night the Gators taught the Cats basketball lessons.
The Gators are one of the best teams in the country. They shared the ball extremely well, earning assists on 17 of their 26 made field goals. “They are an outstanding basketball team,” Calipari said. “They are well coached, talented and very physical.”
As well as the Gators play offensively, they may exceed that with their team effort on the defensive end.
They overplay the passing lanes, double team and rotate on every potential misstep. They make every pass and every dribble an adventure. Tuesday night that resulted in 17 UK turnovers, which directly led to 20 Gators points.
“Their guards were just jerking balls out of our guys’ hands,” Calipari said. “We couldn’t get near the basket on (junior center Patric) Young and they are very active.”
A lot of that is experience. The Gators started three seniors and two juniors. The Cats meanwhile started three freshmen.
3. How will the Cats respond? Obviously, much of that will be answered as more is determined about Noel.
Tuesday was just one loss in a game in which they came in as a 12-point underdog. Nobody was more disappointed in the way the Cats competed than themselves.
But lessons should have been learned, and the Cats can get better from this experience.
“We need to learn from this the best way we can — just stay positive,” sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “We have to be ready to work real hard and improve as a team. We have to lift each other up because tonight was a tough game.”
UK has to start by taking care of business against the Vols in Knoxville on Saturday. The Razorbacks will be waiting with a similar atmosphere in early March, and the Cats will face a stern test against a rejuvenated and healthy Missouri Tiger squad for ESPN GameDay.
If Calipari’s life lessons mix with the on-the-court lesson delivered by the Gators on Tuesday, it is conceivable that when the Gators enter Rupp Arena to finish the season, the Cats could close the gap between the two.
“We have a ways to go,” Calipari said. “This was a game that exposed us physically.”