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Date story published: Wednesday, February 9, 2005

Florida proved its toughness. But beating Kentucky? The Cats insisted that would have to wait for another game.

Trailing most of the first 27 minutes, UK rallied down the stretch to beat Florida 69-66 last night. That marked the Cats' eighth straight victory in the series (and 10th in the last 11 meetings).Unlike many of those earlier victories in this hammer-and-nail rivalry between supposed equals, Kentucky did not impose its will on Florida.

Florida impressed (and surprised) UK with its new-found toughness. So harking back to previous victories, the Cats called again on their well-honed survival instincts.

"They'd come in and try to play hard for five minutes and then back down," UK forward Chuck Hayes said of the Gators' past. Last night, "they came in and gave us their best shot. We didn't back down."

Kentucky, now 18-2 overall, improved to 9-0 in the Southeastern Conference. That put the Cats three games ahead of Florida in the Eastern Division race with seven to play.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan came close to conceding the divisional championship.

"Oh, no question Kentucky's way out ... in the driver's seat and in control," Donovan said. "And I think they deserve to be because they've done it on the road."

Florida, riding high after demolishing Alabama three days earlier, fell to 14-6 overall and 6-3 in the league.

Kentucky's dominance in the series weighed heavily on Florida.

"We were fueled up and ready to play," said guard Anthony Roberson, who lived up to his status as the SEC's leading scorer in league games by getting 23 points. "This was a game I really marked on my calendar."

In the first half, Florida validated the pre-game talk of its new-found toughness. The Gators ran their offense and more than held their own in the lane defensively, causing mounting anxiety in the Rupp Arena stands.

Kentucky led for only 1:10 of the first half and trailed by as much as 11.

"It took everything we had just to stay in the game," said UK Coach Tubby Smith, who attributed the second-half rally to "some clutch plays. We showed our real grit and came out with a hard-fought victory."

Roberson put up 15 first-half points. His prettiest came off a spin move past Rajon Rondo that he converted in the lane.

Florida led by as much as 11 in the first half and went into the break ahead 36-29. That matched the most points UK had surrendered in a first half since the South Carolina game on Jan. 5.

Led by Rondo, Kentucky rallied in the second half as it did in earlier victories at Louisville and Ole Miss. The Cats made eight of their first 10 shots (all within 10 feet of the basket) with Rondo directing a suddenly alive fast-break attack.

"We knew they were coming," Florida's Matt Walsh said of UK's second-half rally. "We knew they were coming at three o'clock this afternoon."

UK repeatedly went inside in the second half, a big reason for a dramatic shooting turnaround (33.3 percent in the first half, 57.7 percent in the second).

"They did the same stuff; they just went inside," said Walsh, who added, "Fifty-eight percent is ridiculous."

Florida led 45-38 when Rondo fed Kelenna Azubuike (team-high 18 points) and Randolph Morris for baskets. Back-to-back fast-break layups, the second by Moss, put UK ahead 47-45 with 13 minutes left. That marked the Cats' first lead since 8-6.

Kentucky took the lead for good with 9:51 left when Azubuike hit a three-pointer over Walsh. The shot put the Cats ahead 53-52 and began a 14-2 run. For almost the next seven minutes, Florida scored one basket: a fast-break layup by Walsh.

Though occasionally drifting out of the offense, Rondo scored six of the points in the run and got the better of Roberson in a telling exchange. After being called for palming -- palming? -- Rondo exchanged words with the Florida guard. Then Rondo let his actions speak by stealing the ball from Roberson and driving to a dunk.

"I think I'm a big-time competitor," Roberson said of the sequence. "He played hard and did the same thing."

Florida did not lay down. Trailing 64-54 (the biggest UK lead) with less than four minutes left, Roberson and Walsh led a charge.

Roberson's three-pointer with 3:21 left, his first basket of the second half, helped the Gators narrow the gap.

But UK made five of seven free throws in the final 75 seconds to hold off Florida.

"We're right there with them," Roberson said. "I think it was everything we didn't do. In past years, you can say they took it."