Keion Brooks' return leads Kentucky basketball to blowout win at Florida
It was no secret Kentucky basketball was missing the presence of sophomore forward Keion Brooks as the Wildcats struggled through the program's worst start to a season since 1927.
But few could have predicted just how different Kentucky would look with Brooks back in the fold.
After missing the first nine games of the season with a lower leg injury, Brooks made his season debut Saturday at Florida, contributing 12 points, six rebounds and four assists to lead Kentucky to its best performance of the season in a 76-58 win at Florida.
"I just try to bring energy and hopefully my energy is infectious to my teammates," Brooks said after the game. "They also did a great job of sticking with me the whole time I was hurt. I didn't want to go out there and let them down, not playing to their standard."
The 6-foot-7, 205-pound forward was cleared to play by doctors earlier this week, but UK assistant coach Jai Lucas had downplayed the expectations for Brooks in his first game back during a pregame news conference Friday. UK coach John Calipari said Brooks told him he would fill whatever role was needed after being cleared.
"I told that to the team," Calipari said. "Think of some of you. You get subbed, and you're like 'Why'd you sub me?' Think of you. Think of how he responded to this. He's a leader by example."
Kentucky outscored Florida by 23 points in Brooks' 24 minutes on the floor. Brooks did not start, but he checked into the game for the first time at the 14:34 mark in the first half.
Brooks quickly contributed an assist on Dontaie Allen's 3-pointer that gave Kentucky its first lead of the game. Less than a minute later, Brooks added a fastbreak dunk to send a message he had returned to full strength.
"He gave us a whole different element to the game," senior guard Davion Mintz said of Brooks. "Keion was amazing today. I'm speechless really."
The Wildcats took a six-point lead into halftime, then opened the second half with a 16-4 run to blow the game open.
Florida rallied to pull within 12 points with 11:29 remaining, but Kentucky answered with a 13-0 run to ensure the Gators would not be able to avenge Kentucky's rally from an 18-point second-half deficit in the two teams' last meeting in Gainesville in the 2019-20 season finale.
That March game at Florida was Brooks' last appearance for Kentucky. He posted on of his best performances as a freshman with 10 points in a career-high 27 minutes to spark the comeback. Brooks is the only player on UK's roster who scored a point in a game for the Wildcats last season.
"You see that he's way physically stronger than he was, way more patient mentally," Calipari said. "The game has slowed down for him. It's a big deal."
Brooks was aided Saturday with a balanced performance from the rest of the Kentucky roster.
Mintz and freshman guard Brandon Boston tied for the team lead with 13 points. Boston added four rebounds, three assists and four steals. Senior forward Olivier Sarr added 10 points. Freshman forward Isaiah Jackson contributed nine points, six rebounds and four blocks.
Kentucky also made headlines before the game as players and coaches kneeled with their arms locked together during the national anthem. The statement came three days after a violent riot at the U.S. Capitol.
The demonstration marked the first in-game statement from UK players since they released a video supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in September. In the video, UK players called for fans to support them on and off the court in speaking out against police brutality.
"It's something that speaks for itself," Calipari said, noting players made the decision to kneel and asked him to join them. "These kids are good kids. They care about this country and all the other stuff. They're trying to figure out life and making statements they have to make."