GAINESVILLE, Fla. — After breezing through the season's first three-plus months, Kentucky's so-called Pursuit of Perfection got messy Saturday night.
Florida had won in eight of the last 10 times Kentucky played in the O'Connell Center. The possibility of another setback, which would mean UK's first defeat of the season, stared Kentucky in the face.
Fittingly, perfection (or close enough to perfect) helped Kentucky prevail 68-61.
The Cats made 16 of 17 free throws in the second half to rally to victory and complete a 21-for-22 night at the line.
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Willie Cauley-Stein (a 47.7-percent free thrower in his career) made five of five, including two with 3:18 left.
The free throw gods showed they had a sense of humor. With UK clinging to a 61-59 lead, Jon Horford (an 89.7-percent free thrower this season) missed two for Florida.
UK made its first 16 free throws. The Cats' only miss — by Andrew Harrison — came with 42.2 seconds left in the game, much too late to do any serious harm.
Kentucky improved to 23-0, which matched Rupp's Runts for the second-best start to a season in program history. The Cats improved to 10-0 in the Southeastern Conference.
Afterward, UK took pride in going toe-to-toe with yet another inspired opponent, and surviving for the third straight game without freshman Trey Lyles (and 13th without Alex Poythress).
"We're a beat-up basketball team right now," UK Coach John Calipari said. "We're in a championship fight every time we step in a building."
Freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds, noted the deafening roar.
"So loud we didn't make any defensive calls with all of us hearing," he said.
Florida (12-11 and 5-5) had hoped its claustrophobic home court and noted Rowdy Reptiles student section would make a big difference.
"In order for your home crowd to be involved and get involved, you have to play well," Florida Coach Billy Donovan had said before game. "I think if you play well, then it makes it that much more difficult."
After the game, Donovan said, "We had our chances. The difference in the game was the free-throw line."
Florida played well enough to compete evenly with Kentucky.
For only the fifth time this season, Kentucky trailed at halftime. Florida led 30-28 at the break.
UK, which had dominated much of this season, was almost exclusively a front-runner later. The Cats did not trail in the most recent 79 minutes and nine seconds (or since Alabama scored the first basket of the game on Jan. 31).
But in the first half at Florida, Kentucky led for only 19 seconds.
Turnovers hurt UK. The Cats committed 10 in the half. Michael Frazier II, an X factor as a perimeter shooter, made two three-pointers en route to a 10-point half.
The Gators led by as much as 20-11 midway through the first half.
One-for-nine three-point shooting contributed to UK's uphill climb early.
Led by Towns, Kentucky rallied. Towns hit a jumper off a pick-and-pop to help fuel a mini 8-0 run late in the half. His two free throws tied it at 28-28 with 1:30 left. That marked the first time UK had not trailed since Frazier's first basket (a three-pointer after catching an inbounds pass) put Florida ahead 3-2 with 18:26 left.
"He's been great," Calipari said of Towns. "Part of that is more minutes. Dakari (Johnson) is not fighting. He's just out there. (That is) giving Karl more minutes."
Then, Calipari added, "You don't want to get Wally Pipped, now."
That was a reference to the baseball player who sat in favor of Lou Gehrig, who went on to play 2,130 straight games.
A two-point deficit was hardly insurmountable. But Kentucky had seldom needed to rally. The Cats trailed only four times previously in the second half (Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Columbia and Buffalo) and never more than by five points (the 38-33 halftime deficit against Buffalo on Nov. 16),
The lead changed hands five times in the first five minutes of the second half.
A three-pointer by Aaron Harrison from the left corner gave UK its largest lead to that point, 42-38, with 13:58 left. A Go-Big-Blue chant filled the O'Connell Center.
Florida responded. When Johnson missed an ill-advised 10-footer, Florida got a fast-break layup to cap a 6-0 counter.
Kentucky called time with 12:30 left, then struck back with a thunderclap.
A Florida turnover fueled a fast break that Cauley-Stein completed in memorable fashion. Taking off from the SEC logo at the top of the lane, he rose for a flying dunk over freshman Devin Robinson.
"Great energizer," said Aaron Harrison, who led Kentucky with 23 points. "Of course, we got excited. I was screaming like I did it."
Cauley-Stein's dunk and three-point play marked the seventh lead change inside the first eight minutes of the second half.
The Cats kept the lead, but never to the point of easing beyond a possession-by-possession drama in the final minutes.