ATLANTA — Florida continued its historic season by becoming only the second team since World War II to beat Kentucky three times in a season. Though on the wrong side of history, the Cats could leave the Georgia Dome proud.
No. 1 Florida won the Southeastern Conference Tournament by beating UK 61-60. The Gators won a 26th straight game (longest streak by an SEC team since UK's 26 straight in 2002-03). Florida also improved its record against league teams to 21-0.
But Kentucky continued to show how its freshmen have grown.
Patric Young, who reminded reporters at the SEC Media Days in October that UK's celebrated freshmen had a lot to learn, saluted the Cats.
"I think they have endured a lot, especially a lot of criticism coming in for being high-caliber potential one-and-done players," he said. "But I commend them on how they just kept fighting today and didn't worry that we were up on them."
Seemingly out of it trailing 54-39 with less than 11 minutes left, the Cats reeled off a 14-0 run.
"It wasn't discouraging," point guard Andrew Harrison said. "Because we know we have the talent to come back against anybody."
Willie Cauley-Stein's free throw capped the run and reduced Kentucky's deficit to 54-53.
That put Florida in familiar territory. With four senior starters, the Gators made their reputation — and became the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament — by owning the final minutes of close games.
History repeating came to mind as Michael Frazier II hit a three-pointer from the corner and Scottie Wilbekin drove to an uncontested layup.
But this time, Florida missed nine of its final 12 shots and committed five turnovers down the stretch.
"Honestly, I don't think this was our best in terms of handling the close game," Young said. "But when we needed to make plays, especially on the defensive side, we were able to."
Wilbekin, whose floor game made him SEC Tournament Most Valuable Player, and Dorian Finney-Smith missed the front ends of one-and-ones inside the final 25 seconds. Kentucky had a chance to not only win but take its first lead of the game.
But James Young slipped as he took a handoff from Andrew Harrison. The clock expired as the teams scrambled for the loose ball.
"I was just trying to get to the basket," Young said. "I just took too much of a wide step and just slipped."
Harrison, who fought back tears in the locker room after the game, blamed himself.
"I waited too long," he said. "I put him in a bad position."
UK Coach John Calipari second-guessed his decision to call timeout with 14 seconds left to set up a play.
"I never call timeout," he said. "I was mad at myself as soon as I did. I was angry.
"Now, we were playing against a set defense. They were spread out and scrambling."
Kentucky's record slipped to 24-10. Aaron Harrison led UK with 16 points.
Florida, which joined the Tennessee Vols of 1978-79 as the only teams to beat Kentucky three times in a season, improved to 32-2. Young and Frazier II led Florida with 14 points each.
Florida outshot, outrebounded and outplayed Kentucky in the first half. As a result, the Gators led 40-30 at halftime.
For a team that spoke Saturday about the "bad habit" of playing poorly in first halves before dominating after intermission, that did not bode well.
Frazier got the Gators off to a good start, scoring his 11 inside the first six minutes. His two three-pointers gave Florida a 6-0 lead and prompted a UK timeout with 17:43 left.
Kentucky got within two points of the Gators. But Wilbekin hit a pair of clutch threes to keep the Cats at bay.
Calipari couldn't blame defenders not raising a hand in Wilbekin's face, as happened at Florida the previous weekend. Julius Randle and Cauley-Stein reached for the sky, but it didn't matter.
Close didn't matter on those shots, but Kentucky took solace in putting Florida, a team that hadn't lost since Dec. 2, on the brink of defeat.
"It's definitely a big confidence builder ... ," Cauley-Stein said. "We're a brand-new team."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.