NASHVILLE — Nothing much changed in this season's third Kentucky-Florida game. Given UK's undefeated record against the Gators (and every other team), sameness holds a lot of charm.
UK beat Florida 64-49 in a Southeastern Conference quarterfinal Friday that resembled the teams' regular-season games.
Florida battled on even terms well into the second half. Then, somehow, some way, inevitability prevails.
"It kind of works out like that," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We keep on playing, and it just works out."
This time UK's lead stood at five points with barely seven minutes remaining. But any doubt about a UK win evaporated thanks to a 14-2 run that set up Kentucky for yet another historical footnote. By improving to 32-0, the Cats equaled the SEC record for consecutive victories. The UK teams of 1953-54 and 1954-55 also won 32 straight.
Kentucky will go for the record — and continue the quest to be college basketball's first unbeaten national champion since Indiana in 1976 — on Saturday. The Cats play Auburn in the semifinals.
The SEC Tournament's format of games day after day only accentuates Kentucky's distinct advantage: depth.
"Teams have the ability to stick with us for 30 minutes," Devin Booker said. "But those last 10 minutes, we're still fresh legs. With two platoons and how we sub, we're still fresh against the 30 minutes they play a game. I know that's tough on their legs."
No surprises in the first half as Florida (16-17) spread the floor and used pick-and-roll offense against Kentucky.
As if to back up its not-intimidated words of Thursday, Florida took the initiative early. UK Coach John Calipari did not wait for the first television timeout before putting in four substitutes after calling a timeout at the 16:26 mark.
Florida twice led by five points inside the first seven minutes.
"Wasn't happy with how we started the game," Calipari said. "But it was a good win."
Marcus Lee noted how Florida altered its approach, thus requiring Kentucky to adjust.
"In every game, you get to feel out your (opponent)," he said. "Feel how the other team is playing. I think that's what we do. In the first half, we start to understand how they're playing, and adjust."
In the regular season, Florida trailed by only four points inside the final minute in Gainesville, and by three with barely more than 10 minutes left in Rupp Arena. The surprise this time was how Florida hung in there, not that the game remained competitive.
"They used their pick-and-roll a whole lot more," Lee said of what Kentucky confronted here. "And that worked really well for them."
Kentucky got a much more engaged performance from Cauley-Stein (as he promised early in the week) and used offensive rebounding to lead 31-27 at halftime.
The margin marked UK's largest lead of the half. So used to being ahead this season, the Cats led only 31 seconds of the opening 11-plus minutes.
Kentucky did not relinquish the lead the rest of the half after going ahead 18-17 on Booker's fast-break layup with 8:39 left.
"We didn't play with as much energy as Florida played with to start the game," Calipari said. "... I told them at halftime, if that's what we have in store, like that's how we're going to do this, we're going to have some problems."
Containing Florida's pick-and-roll plays, Kentucky took its first double-digit lead six minutes into the second half. Holding Florida scoreless for more than three minutes, UK expanded its lead to 42-31 on an Aaron Harrison three-pointer. He and Karl-Anthony Towns led UK with 13 points each.
Jon Horford, a 25 percent three-point shooter this season, led a Florida rally by making a three-pointer. He had not made a three-point shot in 20 of Florida's 32 games this season.
The decisive 14-2 UK run began four minutes later and turned a 50-45 lead into a 64-47 form of cruise control.
While lamenting how Florida set the first-half tone, Calipari noted how he once more tried his many options before once more finding what he and Kentucky needed.
"That's the advantage we have," he said. "We'll juggle it around until we figure out who is playing well. And then we'll ride with those guys."