Double-bye on the line for Cats and Gators in regular-season finale

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Kentucky's Hamidou Diallo has scored 20 points in the past two games, including nine in a win over Ole Miss earlier this week in Lexington. The Wildcats close out the regular-season at Florida Saturday. (Tammie Brown/Kentucky Today)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) —The stakes will be high when Kentucky takes on Florida Saturday in Gainesville.

The Wildcats (21-9, 10-7 Southeastern Conference) can claim a No. 3 seed and a double-bye in next week’s conference tournament in Saint Louis with a win in the regular-season finale. A loss will give the Gators (19-11, 10-7) the third seed, while Kentucky will slip to fourth or fifth, depending on the outcome of the other conference encounters.

“That’s really important, but it’s much more of us just focusing on what we need to do going into March and the momentum that we need going into March knowing that this is when the season really starts for us,” freshman Hamidou Diallo said Friday. “We just need to focus on that and know this is just another big game for us.”

For Kentucky, it’s all about simply winning instead of depending on other teams for help in landing a high seed in the final conference standings.

“We just want to end the season off on the right note,” Diallo said. “We want to end the season off with a ‘W’ and go into this March thinking about winning. That’s what it’s all about.”

Kentucky has lost two of the last three against Florida, including a 22-point setback a year ago in Gainesville. The Gators edged the Wildcats 66-64 on Jan. 20 at Rupp Arena, snapping the team’s 30-game home winning streak against league foes.

A late no-call at the end of the game, coupled with Kentucky’s inconsistency down the stretch, contributed to the narrow setback to the Gators earlier this season.

“We’re not dwelling on the past,” Diallo said. “That’s one thing — once the game is over, we close that chapter and focus on the next one. So coming out today, we’re going to hope that we’re not in position for the last play like that to matter.”

Since that time, it’s been a roller-coaster ride for Kentucky. Following the loss to the Gators, the Wildcats won three straight and then lost four in a row. Kentucky quickly regrouped following a 76-66 setback at Auburn last month and carries a four-game winning streak into the regular-season finale for both teams.

A team meeting in the midst of the skid helped reverse the team’s fortunes.

“Everybody made a commitment when we got in that team meeting together and I started really defining roles and how we were going to play,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Friday. “And one of the things I said, ‘Is everybody committed to this?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘How about if you’re not starting? What if you’re not starting, Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander)? What if you’re not starting, PJ?’ ‘I’m good.’ ‘And how about if you’re not playing as many minutes or getting as many shots? Everybody is OK? Raise your hand if you’re fine.’ And they all did.” 

Calipari also credited his team’s personal and team growth for the late turnaround.

“Before you can worry about conquering somebody else, you gotta conquer yourself,” he said. “That’s what the whole message was. You have to overcome stuff that’s holding you back and not blame anybody. Don’t blame anybody. Don’t blame a coach, a teammate, a fan. What do you have to overcome? Some of it is just plain self-discipline in a lot of areas where guys just don’t have it.

Kentucky, which has scored 80 or more points in the past four games, nearly reached the century mark in a 96-78 rout of Ole Miss earlier this week at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats have placed at least five players in double figures in each of those four wins.

“We’re playing much better basketball and we’re a much better team,” he said. “It will be fun to go out there and see what we can do against a really tough Florida team.”

Much like Kentucky, the Gators endured a three-game slide before posting a 72-66 win over 14th-ranked Auburn last weekend, Florida’s fifth win over a ranked opponent this season. The Gators rolled to a 73-52 win at Alabama earlier this week.

“They went through what we went through, and then they came back and won (the Auburn) game and then beat Alabama on the road,” Calipari said. “They’re clicking at the right time, too.”  

Gametracker: Florida at Kentucky, noon, Saturday. TV/CBS

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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