ATLANTA — The little team that could didn't secure a first-round bye until the regular season's final day. Not one, but two sprained ankles shortened an already super model-thin roster. The opponent, Florida, won 10 of its previous 11, and looked good doing it.
"Everybody doubted us," Kentucky wing Darius Miller said in the victorious locker room. "I don't think anybody but us believed that we could win this."
Win it, Kentucky did, thoroughly beating Florida 70-54 Sunday to win the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.
Of UK's previous 26 SEC Tournament titles, none may have been this unlikely.
Spearheaded by veterans like DeAndre Liggins, Josh Harrellson and Miller, Kentucky handed Florida its first double-digit defeat since No. 1 Ohio State did it in mid-November.
"Darius, DeAndre and Josh really carried us throughout the tournament," freshman Terrence Jones said. "They're really playing the best they've played all year. And we really needed it."
Fellow freshman Brandon Knight led a balanced UK attack with 17 points. Jones added 16 and Miller 15. Liggins chipped in 10.
But defense sparked the victory.
Florida (26-7) struggled all afternoon to settle into a rhythm. Leading scorers Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Chandler Parsons combined to make only 11 of 38 shots.
In the late stages of a frustrating game, Walker and Boynton shot air balls and Parsons charged. Boynton was Florida's only double-digit scorer with 10.
"We swarmed," said Liggins, the key-master of Kentucky's defense. "It seemed like we had six guys out there."
Kentucky (25-8) led 34-29 after a first half of multiple adjustments and maneuvering.
The Cats got little scoring from Doron Lamb, who contributed 23 minutes despite spraining an ankle on Saturday. Meanwhile, Knight and Jones combined to make nine of 24 shots to continue a relatively quiet tournament.
Kentucky got off well, leading 14-5 less than five minutes into the game.
Scottie Wilbekin, who inflicted a personal SEC-high nine points against UK in Gainesville, led a rally. After scoring only four points in Florida's first two games here, he fired in eight in barely more than a minute to right the Gators.
Kentucky did not trail until Parsons' put-back put Florida ahead 20-19 with 11:46 left. That was the exception in a half that saw Parsons, Walker and Boynton combine for 6-for-22 shooting.
Lamb's first points — two free throws — put UK back in front 25-24 with 8:14 left.
Trailing at halftime was familiar for Florida. The Gators trailed by five (to Tennessee) and eight (to Vanderbilt) in their first two games there. Florida outscored those teams 105-70 in the two second halves.
Nothing early in the second half suggested another Florida comeback. Instead, Kentucky zoomed to its first double-digit lead and put a look of concern on Florida Coach Billy Donovan's face.
Miller opened the half with two baskets, the first a turnaround over Parsons and the second a baseline drive that resulted in a three-point play. The latter put UK ahead 39-29 with 19:02 left.
Kentucky's defense reduced Florida's offense to a tentative search for rhythm. In the second half's opening eight minutes, the Gators made only two of eight shots and committed four turnovers.
"Run them off the three-point line," Liggins said of the defensive plan, "and make it tough for them."
Florida got within 45-37. Then Miller swished two three-pointers.
Florida rallied. Crisp passing when UK's defense prevented open shots resulted in a Walker three-pointer from the left corner. That reduced UK's lead to 53-45.
After a timeout, Jones answered with a three-pointer. It was a gutsy shot considering he'd made only four of 26 three-point shots in the last 16 games.
"Just how you feel," Jones said when asked about the courage to take that shot. "I was shooting the ball well during warm-ups."
Kentucky's next possession seemed to settle matters. A rebound scramble after a Harrellson miss went out of bounds with referee Ron Groover signaling Florida's ball. The partisan crowd and UK Coach John Calipari howled. Referee Tony Greene came from the sideline to consult with Groover, who reversed the call and awarded Kentucky possession.
Television replays seemed to show the ball go off Jones.
Boynton's protest got him a technical foul. Knight made both technical free throws to put Kentucky ahead 58-46.