Florida doesn't buckle down the stretch, tops Kentucky 69-59 at Rupp Arena

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 15, 2014 

Before Kentucky played Florida on Saturday night, Dick Vitale unabashedly delivered I-told-you-so's. After UK's loss to Michigan State in November, he said, he had declared that the Cats would be a top 10 team by this time of the season.

All Kentucky had to do was beat No. 3 Florida.

As another ESPN analyst likes to say, not so fast my friend.

Florida's rock-steady play proved too much for the Kiddie Cats to overcome. The Gators rallied down the stretch to beat Kentucky 69-59.

The victory enabled Florida to tie a school record by winning a 17th straight game. The Gators' national championship teams of 2006 and 2007 also did that.

The headline-grabbing numbers also include Florida's first-ever 12-0 start to a Southeastern Conference season, the program's first season winning at both Tennessee and Kentucky since 1988 (the only other time came in 1985) and Kentucky's home record under Coach John Calipari dropping to 81-3.

Kentucky, which fell to 19-6 overall and 9-3 in the SEC, looked at the game as an opportunity to make a statement.

"I guess you could call it that," Alex Poythress said on Friday. "But it's really just a game between two great teams. Come out and compete hard and may the best team win."

That team was Florida, which increased its lead in the SEC race to three games with six to play.

In a game billed as precocious freshmen against savvy veterans, the Young seemed ready to prevailed. James Young, that is.

Young snapped out of a shooting funk to lead Kentucky to a 45-38 lead with 11:12 left.

Coming off a 1-for-10 shooting night at Auburn on Wednesday, Young made seven of 10 shots and scored 19 points.

But Florida outscored Kentucky 31-14 down the stretch to improve to 23-2 overall and 12-0 in the SEC. In those waning moments, UK twice heaved desperation shots to avoid shot-clock violations. Aaron Harrison short-armed two free throws in a deathly-quiet Rupp Arena with 2:47 left.

Aaron's brother Andrew led the Cats with 20 points.

Kentucky led 31-28 at halftime. Considering that UK got the best of it among each team's best perimeter shooters and low-post scorer, the margin perhaps should have been greater.

James Young made four of five shots and scored nine points in the half.

To use basketball lexicon, Young did not settle. His pull-up jumper gave Kentucky an early 7-2 lead. His driving floater along the baseline snapped a 23-23 tie and gave UK the lead for good the rest of the half.

Randle, who had 10 points and six rebounds in the first half, gave Kentucky its largest first-half lead. He took a heady pass from a double-teamed Willie Cauley-Stein to throw down a dunk that put the Cats ahead 31-24 with 2:02 left.

Meanwhile, Florida's best perimeter shooter (its only perimeter shooter?) struggled. Michael Frazier missed all four of his first-half shots (three from beyond the three-point line).

Patric Young got post-up opportunities, but couldn't convert (one-of-six shooting).

Yet, Florida hung in there. After much steadiness, the Gators scored the last four points of the first half to close within three and set up the second half.

Trailing at halftime was nothing new for Florida. The Gators trailed 34-33 at halftime at Tennessee on Tuesday and on two other occasions in league play (at Arkansas and home to Missouri). Florida won all three games.

Florida made four of its first five shots to begin the second half. That put the Gators ahead 36-34 and prompted a Kentucky timeout with 15:57 left. The Cats, who made only one of five shots, could not wait for the television timeout that would come at the next dead ball.

Kentucky went to Young (or Florida remained focused on Randle, it was hard to tell). But Randle drew defenders by driving, then pitching to Young in the right corner. Young's three returned UK to the lead.

Kentucky built a 45-38 advantage, which matched its largest to that point.

But, predictably, Florida did not go away.

Patric Young posted for a three-point play, then Wilbekin turned down a Young screen and hit a three-pointer.

Things got worse for Kentucky as the bench/or/Coach John Calipari received a technical foul with 8:14 left. Referee Michael Stephens called the technical from near mid-court as Calipari stood near the baseline.

Wilbekin made both technical free throws, then Casey Prather drove for a basket that capped a 13-3 mini run to put the Gators ahead 51-48 with 7:57 left.

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

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