No. 6 Kentucky escapes upset bid by Gators in SEC opener

Kentucky's Kastine Evans (32) and Brittany Henderson (40) hamper Florida's Deana Allen (12) under the basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Gainesville, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012. Kentucky won 59-56. (The Associated Press)

Published: Sunday, January 1, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 2, 2012 at 12:15 a.m.

The difference in tight games often comes down to who makes the big plays.

Sunday in the O'Connell Center, it was sixth-ranked Kentucky's response in critical situations late in each half that ultimately led to the Wildcats escaping with a 59-56 win over upset-minded Florida in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams before a crowd of 941.

“We're disappointed obviously because we lost, but more so that we didn't play well,” UF head coach Amanda Butler. “You have to give Kentucky a lot of credit for that. They are definitely the best defensive team we've faced all year. They're a great pressing team that obviously takes a lot of pride in what they do.”

The game was a back-and-forth battle that was still in limbo until senior point guard Amber Smith drained a crucial three-pointer as the shot clock expired to put the Wildcats (12-2, 1-0) ahead 55-47 with 1:55 remaining.

Smith, who had not scored before her clutch trey, then sealed the deal by knocking down 4-of-6 free throws in the final 30 seconds, scoring the final seven points of the game for Kentucky to end a seven-game home winning streak for the Gators (10-4, 0-1).

Smith's clutch trey was just one of three for the Wildcats. UF had taken a 29-27 lead with one minute left in the first half on a turnaround jumper by junior forward Jennifer George, but Kentucky's leading scorer, junior guard A'dia Mathies who had been held scoreless to that point, drained back-to-back threes 15 seconds apart to send the ‘Cats to the locker room up 33-29.

“I know when we go back and watch the film, in particular the way we finished the first half, it's just going to be hard to watch,” Butler said. “You've got to be composed against a great team like that that's bringing that type of pressure and be good passers and good leaders and be good teammates, and there was just too many moments where that dipped for us and wasn't consistent.”

While George did notch her sixth straight double-double with 10 points and a team-high 11 rebounds, she was held scoreless in the second half. Sophomore Jaterra Bonds added 10 points, but the other three starters – senior guards Jordan Jones and Lakita Bartley and senior center Azania Stewart (10 rebounds) – combined to score only nine points, all of them coming in the final 8:19 of play.

UF was led in scoring by seniors Deana Allen (14 points) and Ndidi Madu (11 points) off the bench. The duo combined to go 10-for-21 from the field while the rest of the team was just 10-for-40 as the Gators converted only 32.8 percent in the loss.

Mathies led the ‘Cats with 14 points, with freshman guard Bria Goss adding 11.

“We are so happy to get that win,”Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said. “We certainly had to earn it. Florida played so tough today and it was just what you would expect in an SEC road game. It's going to be a big-time, physical, tough game, and I thought that's what it was today.”

The Gators travel to Ole Miss on Thursday.

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