NEW ORLEANS — Besides winning the championship, Kentucky carried an auxiliary goal into the Southeastern Conference Tournament: Require any opponent impudent enough to consider beating the Cats to play 40 minutes of solid basketball to do it.
Florida came close Saturday but fell just shy of the needed seamless good play. Kentucky won 74-71.
"They played great for just about 40 minutes," said point guard Marquis Teague, whose two free throws with 14.2 seconds left clinched UK's 32nd victory in 33 games.
"Just about" included 11-for-22 shooting from Florida's live-or-die three-point range. But for only the third time in 21 games this season, the Gators lost while making 10 or more three-point shots.
"We took a really good shot from them and LSU," Terrence Jones said of UK's two victories in two days. "We really stepped up to the challenge."
Kentucky used a big second-half rebounding effort to beat Florida and advance to the SEC Tournament's championship game Sunday. During a decisive 14-0 run that erased Florida's 56-51 lead, the Cats grabbed six offensive rebounds.
After assuming a 65-56 lead entering the final seven minutes, Kentucky appeared to be on cruise control.
"I believe, this time, we didn't give up," Florida freshman Bradley Beal said. "In the first two games (against UK), we kind of gave up down the stretch."
Florida (23-10) closed within two, 65-63. Then Anthony Davis outfought two Florida players for a rebound of Teague's missed free throw. The put-back put the Cats ahead 68-63 going into the final two minutes.
Kentucky led once in the first half: A Davis three-pointer with 13.1 seconds left put the Cats up 40-39.
For much of the first half, UK lived its worst nightmare against Florida. The Gators made three-pointers (five of its first eight attempts) and got good work from Patric Young in the low post against Davis. While the three-point accuracy departed from the track record (Florida made only 12 of 49 attempts in the two regular-season games), Young proved productive against Davis for the second time in seven days.
A three-pointer by Beal with 8:42 left gave Florida its largest lead: 31-21. That marked only the second game all season that Kentucky trailed by a double-digit margin, the first time coming at Mississippi State on Feb. 21.
Unlike at Starkville, Kentucky did not wait until the second half to rally. The Cats held Florida scoreless over the final 4:24 of the first half. In that span, the Gators missed seven shots (two from beyond the arc), and UK steadily closed.
Teague used a hesitation dribble to freeze Erving Walker before hitting a pull-up jumper to bring Kentucky within two, 39-37. After Kenny Boynton missed an ill-advised driving shot over Davis, the UK freshman star hit a three-pointer from the left wing.
The shot marked the third straight game Davis had made a three-pointer.
Florida did not go away early in the second half. Three-pointers by Erik Murphy and Beal — which made the Gators 7-for-13 from beyond the arc till then — helped put Kentucky behind 49-47 at the first TV timeout of the second half.
Beal's three-pointer with 17:53 left was Florida's seventh, or one more than the Gators had in either of their regular-season games against Kentucky.
Kentucky fan frustration — or impatience — began to show midway through the second half. A five-shot possession that yielded no points? There had to be a foul in there somewhere, the booing suggested.
Later, Young used his considerable muscle to clear space for a rebound. Again, no foul and plenty of boos.
Florida took a 54-49 lead when Walker hit a three-pointer with 11:40 left. It was his first basket (after six misses). Until that shot, he'd made only 23 of 95 (15 of 54 from beyond the arc) against UK in his career.
Kentucky regained the lead with a five-point flurry in less than a minute. After two Jones free throws, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hit a floater. Then Doron Lamb separated Scottie Wilbekin from the ball and sped to a layup that put the Cats ahead 57-56.
A Florida timeout interrupted, but failed to halt, Kentucky's momentum. Jones hit a three-pointer, then dunked a missed flip shot by Davis to put UK ahead 62-56 with less than eight minutes left.
The lead grew as large as 65-56 going into the final seven minutes.
"I think we're starting to figure out we're a team that, outside of Patric, when he's off the floor, we really don't necessarily have a dominant post presence," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. "Kentucky's got three of them."
Donovan meant Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones and Davis.
"And even (Darius) Miller," the Florida coach said.
Even on one of Florida's better days, that was too much to overcome.
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com