Kentucky sweeps SEC with win at Florida

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 4, 2012 

  • Kentucky vs. Western Kentucky

    When: 7 p.m. Saturday
    Where: LP Field in Nashville
    TV: ESPNews
    Radio: WBUL-FM 98.1; WLAP-AM 630; WWRW-FM 105.5

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — If a rare bit of history can be made in a wholly predictable way, Kentucky did it Sunday. UK used its by-now routine knack for clutch play and an unmistakable superiority to beat back Florida 74-59.

The victory — accompanied by the customary sound track (the UK fans here chanted "Go, Big Blue" several times) — enabled Kentucky to go where few have tread: The Cats became only the third team since 1956 to go unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play and, in a program for which historic achievement remains largely out of reach, became the first UK team to win 30 games in a regular season.

"If somebody's going to beat that, they'll have to win 31," Coach John Calipari said. "Which is all of them."

Kentucky trailed only once. When Florida reduced a 16-point first-half lead to two barely three minutes into the second half, the Cats rose to the challenge.

"If you break down against them, you're going to pay," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said in tribute to the Cats. "But they also have an ability to to make (clutch) shots. When you do guard them the way you want them guarded, they can still make the shot."

Florida reset the stage for another example of UK resolve by closing within two at 46-44. That marked UK's smallest lead since 15-14. More than 16 minutes remained.

After calling a timeout with 16:29 left, Calipari inserted Darius Miller, UK's Mr. Clutch in both Vanderbilt games and at Mississippi State.

The move paid off 22 seconds later as Miller swished a pull-up jumper despite being bumped as he rose.

With Florida lurking at 51-44, freshman big man Anthony Davis swished a three-pointer from the top of the key. Until Thursday against Georgia, he hadn't made a shot from beyond the arc, not that he couldn't.

"I didn't really need to," he said. "The way teams are playing me, backing off, it leaves me open. Coach Cal said to put up shots."

Davis, who finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds and six blocks, responded again when Florida closed within four, 57-53. He swooped into the lane and tossed in a — where's that been? — left-handed baby hook.

Florida (22-9, 10-6 SEC) persisted. But with UK nursing a 61-55 lead, Terrence Jones swished a three-pointer. He hadn't made a trey since Jan. 21 against Alabama. Maybe, like Davis, he was saving it for when it was needed.

As if serving an appetizer for what was to come, Jones appeared to turn the wrong way and then shoot a 10-footer across his body. It rattled in to give the Cats a 46-40 lead.

Meanwhile, Florida went scoreless for more than four minutes after closing within two, 46-44.

UK improved to 30-1 overall and 16-0 in the SEC. Since 1956, the only two teams to win every league game were Kentucky in 1995-96 and 2002-03.

Donovan likened this UK team to the latter.

Noting the lead role played by Chuck Hayes (incidentally, only the fifth-leading scorer) in 2002-03, the Florida coach said of the current Cats, "These guys are equally effective, but so much more gifted and talented than Hayes.

"He was the whole key when you're talking of making timely plays. They have several guys who can make timely plays."

Kentucky trailed for all of 25 seconds, which reminded anyone still needing reminding which team clearly is the SEC's best this season.

With Jones exploiting his matchup with Erik Murphy, Kentucky led by as much as 16 points before settling for a 40-32 lead at intermission. Jones scored 14 of his 19 in the first half.

"I thought it was a (favorable) matchup," Calipari said. "I told him, 'Terrence, you're one of the top five players in the country; play that way.' "

The UK lead reached its zenith — 38-22 with 4:10 left — when Jones hit a putback of Marquis Teague's quasi lob/shot that bounced off the rim.

"He came out very strong," Davis said of Jones. "If Terrence plays like that, I think it'll be very hard for anybody to beat us."

And if Jones doesn't play like that, well, Kentucky will still be hard to beat.

"This team has a will to win," Calipari said, repeating an observation he's made on several occasions this season. "I told them, 'If it's close, I feel good about it.' This team wants to win."

Even a relatively meaningless game with the SEC championship (and, surely a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament) secured could not dull that will.

"We play to win," Calipari said. "We're not playing not to lose. That was my message: Go have pride and play."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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