GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Eric Bledsoe scored a career-high 25 points, but it took contributions from many players for Kentucky to subdue Florida 89-77 Tuesday night.
Repeating a familiar pattern, UK established a solid lead. In this raucous roller-coaster ride, the Cats twice led by 15 points six minutes into the second half.
Then with five minutes to go, UK found the score tied at 72 and the winner to be decided by which team had the greater will and steadier nerve.
"You get up 15 and, all of a sudden, we're tied," said UK Coach John Calipari, who the day before lamented how the Cats lacked a knockout punch. "At some point this season, we've got to get people down and keep them down. Or we're going to lose games. And you'll go on a run of not just losing one, but losing two, three, four."
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In winning at Florida for the first time since 2004 (and by a double-digit margin for the first time since a 79-54 rout in 1998), Kentucky had several players make clutch contributions.
UK called an inbounds play for Patrick Patterson, who delivered a baby hook while being fouled by Vernon Macklin. That put UK ahead 74-72 with just under five minutes left.
"That's my bread and butter," said Patterson, who finished with 15 points. "I love being on the block."
When Patterson missed the free throw, DeMarcus Cousins grabbed the rebound. With the bonus possession, Kentucky got Darnell Dodson's second three-pointer of the game. He had gone 0-for-7 from beyond the arc in the past two games.
After Florida made one of two free throws, Bledsoe swished his third three-pointer (he had made only two of 11 in his past three games).
"Why did that happen?" Calipari said of the flood of clutch plays. "All in the last three or four minutes. We have to figure out how to tap into that and say this is what we have to be and how we have to play."
UK improved to 17-0 and 2-0 in the Southeastern Conference. Calipari can tie Adolph Rupp's record of 64 straight conference victories if the Cats win at Auburn on Saturday. Florida (11-5) fell to 0-2 in the SEC for the first time in Billy Donovan's 14 seasons as coach.
Led by Bledsoe, Kentucky took a 38-31 halftime lead. The freshman from Birmingham scored 15 first-half points to help the Cats recover from a slow start.
UK made only two of its first 14 shots. In that stretch, the Cats missed several shots in the lane.
Kentucky did not score until Bledsoe drove for a layup with 15:52 left. The Cats scored only one more basket over the game's first eight minutes.
But Florida did not make enough shots to take advantage. The Gators' five players averaging double-digit points made only six of 22 shots in the half.
Kentucky took control late in the first half, limiting Florida to impossibly long three-point attempts or turnovers.
Nothing early in the second half suggested a Florida comeback. Just the opposite.
Darius Miller, the obvious target of Calipari's appeal for more spirited play, grabbed an offensive rebound, moved assertively to the basket and threw down a two-handed dunk.
That brought Calipari out of his seat, holding his hands to his head in mock horror.
Back-to-back plays by Bledsoe gave Kentucky its first double-digit lead. First, he drove and rolled in a pretty left-handed layup under 6-foot-9 freshman Erik Murphy.
Then, after Kenny Boynton missed two shots, Bledsoe fed Patterson for a fast-break dunk that put the Cats ahead 48-38 with 16:13 left.
It seemed time to find out whether Kentucky could answer Calipari's call to expand a solid lead into game-over proportions.
The answer was no. Erving Walker got hot from the perimeter, hitting a pair of three-pointers to help Florida rally. He finished with 20 points.
"Walker went nuts," Calipari said.
Florida finally tied it at 72 on Macklin's put-back with 5:14 left. That marked the first time UK had not led since the 8:10 mark of the first half.
Then the Cats reasserted control.
Vitale likes UK
Ebullient commentator Dick Vitale wanted to spread the news that he wrote good things about Kentucky in a column that appears Wednesday in USA Today. In his mid-season national awards, Vitale named UK freshman John Wall his Player of the Year and Diaper Dandy of the Year. Vitale also named John Calipari his Coach of the Year.
Former Georgia Coach Dennis Felton was among the contingent of NBA scouts attending the game.
Felton is scouting for the Phoenix Suns.
He said he hopes to return to coaching. Meanwhile, Felton is enjoying a break from coaching.