GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Kentucky coach John Calipari went around the locker room at halftime and picked on just about everyone. His harshest criticism was directed toward star forward Nick Richards.
“Nick, you are so bad right now,” Calipari recalled. “We’re not going away from you, so you can either be the player you’ve been all year or look like this.”
Richards chose option No. 1. The junior scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half, leading the way as the sixth-ranked Wildcats rallied from an 18-point deficit and stunned Florida 71-70 on Saturday.
The shorthanded Wildcats (25-6, 15-3 Southeastern Conference) needed the comeback to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time in nearly three months. They blew an 17-point lead against Tennessee on Tuesday night.
Richards, Keion Brooks Jr. and EJ Montgomery provided the spark in this one, helping make up for the absence of point guard Ashton Hagans.
Hagans didn’t make the trip three days after arguing with Calipari on the bench against the Volunteers.
“Just personal,” Calipari said. “Here’s what I’ll tell you about these kids: In the last three years, this has totally changed. What is on these players. … The clutter that they got to deal with, the lists, what’s out there, not being able to stay in the moment, the anxiety of worrying a year from now, everyone around them.
“And then you’re at Kentucky, where every game is someone’s Super Bowl, every game is sold out and now all of a sudden you start struggling four of five games and now you don’t know how to deal with stuff.”
Calipari said he expects Hagans to return before next week’s SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tennessee. Kentucky is the No. 1 seed and opens play Friday following a double bye.
“Hopefully what you’ll see is an inspired young man,” Calipari said. “And if he doesn’t think he’s ready for that, then he’s not ready. We’re going to go without whoever we have.”
Kentucky showed a little depth without Hagans and guard Immanuel Quickley, who fouled out with about nine minutes remaining. Quickley finished with 12 points. Freshman guard Johnny Juzang scored 10 points while playing a season-high 32 minutes. But the frontcourt did most of the heavy lifting down the stretch.
Brooks hit a floater in the lane with 59 second remaining to cut the lead to 70-69. Florida answered with a shot-clock violation on the other end.
Brooks missed a driving baseline layup, and Montgomery’s tip-in was initially waived off as a cylinder violation. Officials reviewed it and gave Montgomery the basket with 11.8 seconds left for a 71-70 Wildcats’ lead, their first of the game.
Richards missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving Florida a final chance to win it. But Andrew Nembhard’s 3-pointer bounced twice off the rim before missing, setting off Kentucky’s raucous celebration.
Richards was 1-for-6 shooting in the first half. He was 7 of 11 after the break.
“Coaches gave me the challenge to see if I could turn it around,” Richards said. “I took on that challenge. Obviously, we came out with a really big win.”
Scottie Lewis scored a career-high 19 for Florida (19-12, 11-7). Noah Locke added 14, and Keyontae Johnson 12. Florida led by 18 points with 11:48 left in the game.
The Gators played most of the second half with standout forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. Blackshear sprained his left wrist in the first half. He went to the locker room and returned with it heavily taped. He tried to play in the second half, but he ended up on the bench with it wrapped in ice.
Blackshear was scoreless for the first time all season. He had five rebounds. Without him, Kentucky had a much easier time in the paint.
“Obviously, that’s big for us, a big loss defensively and offensively,” Lewis said. “He’s someone that can go get an easy bucket for us.”
Kentucky: The Wildcats need Hagans back to make a deep postseason run. They’re simply not the same without arguably the league’s best perimeter defender and open-court playmakers.
Florida: The Gators have to wait and see their seeding. They will be either No. 4 or 5 depending on Mississippi State’s outcome tonight.
Kentucky: Gets an extended break before playing in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament on Friday in Nashville.
Florida: Awaits seeding in the SEC Tournament. Will begin play Thursday or Friday.