Photo slideshow: No. 6 Kentucky defeats Florida 66-57
Kentucky defeated Florida 66-57 on Saturday to move into position to win a share of the Southeastern Conference championship. At least until LSU did the expected and beat winless Vanderbilt later Saturday night.
It wasn’t easy.
Five times early in the second half there was a chant of “Go Big Blue,” the third time accompanied by a drum beat. The crowd’s repeated urgings reached a crescendo with 12 minutes left when fans showed their approval of five straight UK points with a standing ovation.
Perhaps all this was in response to a scolding at halftime from on-court co-host and former UK player Ravi Moss. He reminded the crowd that UK had much to play for and needed the help. First place in the SEC and a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament were on the line, he said.
Led by PJ Washington and roommates Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, Kentucky pulled away in the second half of the second half. The trio scored 22 of the team’s 25 points in a span that saw Kentucky break from a 35-35 with less than 16 minutes left.
Kentucky improved to 26-5 overall and 15-3 in the SEC. With Tennessee losing at Auburn earlier in the day, UK tied the Vols. LSU came into the regular season’s final weekend with a 15-2 league record.
Herro led UK with 16 points. Washington added 15, while Johnson and Ashton Hagans chipped in 14 each.
Florida, which was seeking a signature victory to help get an NCAA Tournament bid, fell to 17-14 overall and 9-9 in the SEC. The Gators’ top three scorers – KeVaughn Allen, Noah Locke and Jalen Hudson – made nine of 26 shots (two of 12 from three-point range).
Despite leading by as much as nine points in the first half, Kentucky trailed 31-30 at halftime. That marked the fourth straight game UK has been behind at the break. The Cats also trailed at halftime in Gainesville (33-29) before outscoring Florida 36-21 in the second half en route to victory.
Kentucky got the better of it early. After a feel-good start by walk-on Jonny David on Senior Day, UK ground down the Gators. The first-half lead reached its zenith at 25-16 on a Hagans three-pointer with 5:54.
Florida had the better of it down the stretch. After making only four of their first 14 shots, the Gators made nine of their final 13.
A corner three by Mike Okauru reduced UK’s lead to 25-21 and probably surprised Florida. He came into the game having made only five of 20 three-point shots, and scored only four points in the five most recent games.
Florida’s largest first-half lead (31-28) came on a memorable play. Isaiah Stokes, the younger brother of former Tennessee player Jarnell Stokes, lifted Nick Richards with a shot fake near the top of the key. With Richards taking himself out of the play, Stokes (who hadn’t made a three-pointer all season) drove to a dunk with 1:25 left.
Neither team broke away early in the second half.
KeVaughn Allen finally scored with 15:16 left. His three-pointer put Florida ahead 38-37.
Kentucky countered by going to Washington almost exclusively. In one three-minute stretch, he took six straight shots, making three.
No. 6 Kentucky vs. TBA
What: SEC Tournament
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
When: March 13-17
TV: All games on SEC Network or ESPN