ATLANTA — And so here we are again, Kentucky and Florida, the rubber match for the SEC Tournament crown.
Did we want it any other any way?
Florida beat Kentucky in Gainesville.
Kentucky beat Florida in Lexington.
"Kentucky plays really well at home," said Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings after his Commodores lost 77-66 to the regular-season champion Gators in Saturday's second semifinal. "And this will be like a home game for them."
"It'll be like playing in Rupp Arena," said Billy Donovan, the Gators' coach.
Only Kentucky could easily be a man down for this game in Catlanta. DeAndre Liggins made it to the post-game news conference after injuring his ankle late in UK's 72-58 semifinal win over Alabama. He said the sprain was more of a tweak. Said he'd be fine. Meanwhile, Doron Lamb was back in the locker room, on crutches, an ice pack on his sprained left ankle.
"He's probably doubtful," UK Coach John Calipari admitted after his team's win. "It doesn't look good."
You can debate Calipari's decision to stick with his starters even with a 20-point lead over the Crimson Tide in the closing minutes, but the fact remains the coach played with fire and got burned. Many coaches do that.
And Lamb is a valuable piece. He's made 13 of 20 shots in two games in this tournament, scoring 34 points. There's really no reason to risk playing him Sunday, not with the Big Dance straight ahead. My advice: Get some rest.
For NCAA purposes, it's not that Sunday's outcome is all that important. Both the Cats and Gators have a shot at a No. 2 seed. Hearing that you're a No. 2 on Sunday night is not nearly so important as remaining a No. 3. The thing you don't want to do is slip to a No. 4 seed, where you'll end up having to probably play a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16.
Instead, Sunday will be more for pride and bragging rights between the league's top two hoops programs, both back to where they were a few years ago.
Florida is playing well. The Gators did lose in Lexington on Feb. 26, but then they drubbed Alabama by 27 in Gainesville and knocked off Vanderbilt in Nashville. Saturday in the Georgia Dome, they did it to the 'Dores again, beating Vandy for the third time this year. This was one day after beating Tennessee for the third time this year.
"I think that's a great accomplishment for us," said the Gators' Kenny Boynton. "But I think the key to these games has been our focus to get one win and move on to the next."
So how did Florida beat UK in the O-Dome, only to lose in Rupp? Actually, the Gators didn't play much different in either venue. They shot 43.4 percent in Gainesville, 44.6 in Lexington. The difference was Kentucky.
The Cats played one of their better offensive games of the year in the second meeting with the Fighting Donovans. They shot 51.7 percent and scored 76 points against a good defensive team.
After scoring just nine points at Florida, Darius Miller erupted for 24 in his friendly confines. It was the fourth in what now has stretched to an eight-game streak of double-figure scoring efforts for the junior from Maysville.
"To me, he's one of the most versatile and underrated players in our league," said Donovan on Saturday. "We recruited him, so I know something about his game. I thought he could play at the level he's playing now."
Both teams are playing at a pretty high level, in fact. Heading into Saturday's game, Florida was No. 8 in the RPI, Kentucky was No. 10. The Gators are a little older, what with every starter back from the team that made the NCAA Tournament last year. Kentucky might be a little more talented, what with some possible lottery picks in the starting five — though one, Terrence Jones, has struggled mightily the first two games here.
"It will be very well representative of our league," Stallings said, "and two of the best, if not the two best teams in our league."
Just what you want in a conference tournament finals.
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or email@example.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.