UK survives battle against Florida

Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison drives to the basket during the second half of the University of Kentucky Men’s Basketball game versus University of Florida basketball game at O’Connell Center in Gainesville , Fl., on Saturday, February 7, 2015. . Photo by Jonathan Krueger

By Kevin Erpenbeck

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Undefeated UK took some hits, experienced a battle, and for just the fifth time all season, trailed at halftime.

Then, the Cats punched back and kept perfection going.

Sophomore guard Aaron Harrison scored 18 of his team-leading 23 points in the second half and helped pull UK to a 68-61 road win over Florida.

Harrison said a knockout-style match like the one on Saturday was exactly what the team needed.

“We definitely needed this type of game,” Harrison said. “We haven’t been in that many battles this year. You have to go through tough times to become a good team, and I think tonight we showed what we could do under pressure.”

The Cats handled the pressure in a rowdy O’Connell Center, going 21-for-22 from the foul line and shooting nearly 47 percent from the floor. Harrison, along with forwards Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, were a perfect 20-for-20 from the charity stripe.

Towns, who finished with 19 points and eight rebounds, said the the Florida fans were crazy and loud, which affected the Cats’ communication on defense.

“It was awesome,” Towns said. “We couldn’t make defensive calls with not all of us hearing. The crowd was really into the game, and I’m glad we were able to come out with a win.”

UK regained the lead three minutes into the second half with a Towns jumper, but it was a high-flying dunk from Cauley-Stein at the 12:09 mark that really gave the Cats control of the game. UK never trailed after that, battling through every shot Florida threw at them.

“You keep taking everybody’s best. We’re in a championship fight every time we walk into a building,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “Last night, I told them, ‘You cannot have fun if the other guy is punching you in the eye. You have to be ready to punch before he punches you.’”

Florida head coach Billy Donovan said he felt as if his team played to win against UK, something that has not happened all season for the now 12-11 Gator squad.

“It’s the first time in 23 games I felt like our team actually played to win the game,” Donovan said. “I thought we played as a team tonight. I’m hopeful in some way that this has been an incredible learning and growing experience for them in terms of their immaturity and selfishness.”

The undefeated Cats expect more close games like they saw on Saturday before the season ends in March, but just because the games are tough does not mean the team is not having fun.

“During the game, I’m in a dogfight,” Calipari said. “At halftime, I said, ‘We’re playing to win. My mindset the entire second half is what do I do to help us win. You need to be the same way.’ I may never coach another team like this again in my career. I’m enjoying this.”