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Mays gets his senior moment in UK's crucial win over Florida

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Julius Mays scored 13 points, including two game-sealing, free throws in UK's 61-57 Senior Day win over Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Mays scored 13 points, including two game-sealing, free throws in UK's 61-57 Senior Day win over Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Julius Mays couldn't have asked for better way for it to end.

He stepped to the line to shoot two free throws with less than 10 seconds left in his regular-season home career. With Kentucky leading by two, he had a chance to all but salt away a victory in matchup with Florida called UK's "one-game season."

For anyone who has watched him during his season as a Wildcat, the result should come as no surprise. "Uncle Julius" stepped up, received a pass from the referee, wiped his hands on the soles of his shoes and calmly got the job done in a 61-57 victory.

"I had a lot of big moments in my college career, but that one was probably my biggest one because we needed that win more than we needed anything to keep our hopes alive," Mays said.

What a raucous crowd of 24,294 fans in Rupp Arena and television viewers at home didn't see was what happened in the huddle when Florida called timeout before the in-bounds pass that led to Mays being fouled. There, Mays told Coach Cal in no uncertain terms that he wanted the ball in his hands.

Calipari obliged, subbing in Kyle Wiltjer - who had sad most of the final minutes - and calling for two-man curl-and-pop action between him and Mays, anticipating a trap on Mays, UK's best foul shooter on the season at 83.6 percent entering Saturday's game. Mays took the floor intending to follow the plan, but saw an opening in the Gator defense and sprinted free.

"He walked out, I ain't curling anything, just get me the ball," Calipari said. "He went and got fouled, made both. He knew he was going to make them."

Sheepishly, Mays admitted to breaking off and doing his own thing - even though Coach Cal surely didn't mind this time.

"He actually didn't call the play how I ran it, but I wanted that ball and I wanted to shoot the free throws," said Mays, who finished with 13 points and three 3-pointers.

Mays will forever have the memory of delivering in a situation with UK's NCAA Tournament life on the line, but the way his teammates responded throughout the Cats' upset of the No. 11/9 Gators might be an even more lasting takeaway.

In his short Kentucky career, Mays has fashioned himself into a leader of his young team. To a man, his teammates express respect for their elder - who is working toward a graduate degree - and appreciation for his presence. But heading into his final home game, Mays made it clear he would not accept anything short of supreme effort from those surrounding him, regardless of whether it might lose him a friend or two.

But ultimately, that probably only strengthened Mays' bond with his younger teammates.

"I think they know when I got them, I only want to win," Mays said. "I only want to see them do their best. Even though we had a time when it felt like guys were going to let go of the rope, but I was holding guys accountable and if you couldn't get it done, you couldn't be in the game."

From the opening tip, the Cats made their presence known. They jumped out to a 4-0 lead, forcing a Florida timeout within the game's first minute and eventually grabbing an 11-2 advantage. But as Final Four contenders are wont to do, the Gators consistently battled back. Even so UK never wilted, refusing to give in at points when they likely would have in other games this season.

"I think they grew up," Mays said. "They didn't have any choice. They knew it was do or die and we needed this win more than anything. They stepped up big and we came out with the win."

The biggest test came with 7:36 left in the second half. A 19-5 Florida run had put the Cats in a 57-50 hole and the outlook was bleak, but that's when they showed things would be different on this day. Over the game's final 14 possessions, UK held the nation's fourth-most efficient offense according to scoreless. The Cats forced five turnovers as Florida missed its final 11 shots, opening the door for Mays' free throws.

"It showed that we can play defense and we can defend really well when we want to," Mays said. "And they had times when they could score, but Willie's (Cauley-Stein) presence in there, I think it scared them. It made them alter shots and just throw it at the rim and we came up with big rebounds."

Cauley-Stein played all but one second of that game-ending 11-0 run and, incredibly, he played all but one second of the final 11:15 with four fouls. His numbers in 25 foul-plagued minutes (six points, eight rebounds and four blocks) aren't his best of the season, but at no point has his impact been so keenly felt as UK outscored Florida by 12 points when Cauley-Stein was on the floor.

"He just brought unbelievable energy," said Archie Goodwin, who led the Cats with four steals and 16 points, six of which came during the final 5:34. "The first couple of possessions he got a couple big blocks. Throughout the game he was able to withstand his energy. There were a couple times he had a couple plays where he fell asleep when he gave up two 3s, but he made up for it. To play with four fouls like he did at the end was huge."

Equally huge was the play of Alex Poythress. After the freshman forward made the kind of mistake that has oftentimes derailed him in failing to execute a play on offense out of a timeout, his teammates and coaches got after him. You can guess who the first one to approach him was.

"What I said to him is between he and I and he responded really well," Mays said. "He tends sometimes to kind of stray away and he gets down on himself. You expect that from a young guy, but tonight he responded. Other times in the season, he's got down on himself and he hasn't responded. But tonight he responded and we really needed it."

Instead of retreating into his shell, Poythress asked to reenter the game. And during the final 7:36, he had three key rebounds (he had a career-best 12 on the day) and an assist to Goodwin.

"I made a mistake and I knew my team needed me out there," Poythress said, "so I just said 'Coach I'm good, I'll be fine out there, put me back in.' "

Poythress will now spend the coming days looking to ensure that carries over into the Southeastern Conference Tournament. UK clinched a double bye in the tournament by beating Florida and Ole Miss's victory over LSU ensures the Cats will be the No. 2 seed in Nashville, Tenn., and will also be looking to build on their signature win to this point.

"We can only take it a game at a time," Mays said. "We needed this win to keep our hopes alive and we got it. We're looking at getting a good seed in the SEC Tournament and we're not looking past anyone. We're just ready for our next opponent and that's what we're just going to be ready for, whoever that may be, and just be ready to compete."

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