UK holds on for 74-66 win over Florida

Wall shines bright when Cats need him most

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 8, 2010 

Kentucky completed its Southeastern Conference regular-season championship run in style on Sunday. That meant this UK team's signature style of building a lead, then having the opponent rally and create the need for clutch plays to avoid Cat-astrophe.

In other words, Kentucky got back on the seesaw of momentum. UK built an 18-point lead in the first half, then found itself having to outperform Florida in the final five minutes to win 74-66.

Freshman John Wall, who finished the regular season like he began it by making the big plays, saw trouble in continuingly being put in a position to save the day.

"That's the key thing," Wall said. "That can be the thing that stops us in the (NCAA) Tournament."

Earlier this month, Wall acknowledged that he might not be the best shooter. But when it matters most, he said, he's a good choice to take the shot.

Wall breathed life into that statement by swishing a three-pointer from the left wing with UK clinging to a 62-60 lead.

"What I like is that somebody would say that and then go in the game and back it up," UK Coach John Calipari said. "Wow!"

Wall, who missed his three other attempts from beyond the arc, hit the three-pointer that started a string of six straight points. From there, the Cats eased to victory. Kentucky improved to 29-2 overall and 14-2 in the SEC going into this week's conference tournament in Nashville.

"The shooting percentage says 29 percent," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said of Wall's accuracy in league play. "But there are guys ... at certain points and times in games, they can change the percentage, so to speak."

Donovan saluted Wall's acceptance — again and again — of the responsibility to take a big shot.

"He's not afraid to put his reputation on the line every single time," Donovan said. "I admire that the most about him."

That Wall had to make big shots in this game gnawed at Calipari and his players.

Kentucky led 41-31 at halftime. That represented a sizable margin, giving Florida's strategy to, if not milk the shot clock and shorten the game, then to attack only under favorable conditions.

But UK probably left the floor feeling the margin should have been greater. The Cats led 36-18 and had Rupp Arena rocking with 4:32 left in the half.

Then Kentucky went through one of its familiar off-key stretches. After expanding its lead to 18 points, the Cats had more turnovers (four) than baskets (two) in the final 4:32.

Florida took advantage, outscoring Kentucky 10-3 in the final 2:28.

"We kind of let them back in," said Calipari, who was kind of upset about it.

The UK coach cited rebounding. "We're supposed to be the No. 1 rebounding team," he said. "They outrebounded us and got 19 offensive rebounds.

"We shot pretty well. We defended pretty well. But we did some things that gave them a chance."

With UK shooting well from three-point range (eight of 18) for a second straight game, the Cats never trailed. The lead reached its zenith at 36-18 with 4:32 left in the first half. Moments earlier, Florida's chances dimmed further when Vernon Macklin picked up his second foul and went to the bench.

But instead of pulling away, Kentucky stumbled.

Eric Bledsoe charged on back-to-back possessions in the final minute. A more memorable misstep came with 1:02 left. DeMarcus Cousins saved a ball under Florida's offensive basket. "We've been talking about that since the last game," Calipari groused. Freshman Erik Murphy converted the gift with a layup while being fouled by Wall. That was Wall's second foul.

After Bledsoe's first charge, Kenny Boynton hit a pull-up jumper with 33.6 seconds left to set the halftime score.

Florida twice got within three points of Kentucky barely nine minutes into the second half. The game was on. The Gators twice narrowed Kentucky's lead to two points with more than five minutes remaining.

With the lead down to 60-58, Patrick Patterson dunked off a pick-and-roll pass from Wall. Then after Murphy countered with a dunk, Wall hit his big three-pointer.

"You just sit there and tell them, these are things we can't do," Calipari said. "I thought Florida outworked us at individual positions. Our goal has to be we're going to play harder than the other team. We have to. If not, we're going to disappoint ourselves at some point during the tournament."

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