No. 1 Kentucky too much for Gators

Kentucky Wildcats forward Terrence Jones dunks against the Florida Gators during the first half at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on Sunday, March 4, 2012 in Gainesville, Fla.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 1:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 4, 2012 at 1:59 p.m.

By Kevin Brockway

Staff writer

For as over-matched as Florida was against No. 1 Kentucky on Sunday, the Gators hung around long enough to make the second half interesting.

But in the final nine minutes, a combination of ill-advised shots and flat-out, wide-open misses doomed the No. 16 Gators in a 74-59 loss before 12,113 at the O'Connell Center.

If you are looking for bright spots, Florida sophomore center Patric Young scored 21 points, his most in a Southeastern Conference game and four shy of the career-high 25 points he set earlier in the season against Arizona. But it wasn't enough for the Gators to avoid their third straight loss to close the regular season.

“Whether you play hard or not, you've got to come out with the win,” Florida senior point guard Erving Walker said. “We're in a one-and-done situation now, so we gotta figure this out.”

Florida (22-9, 10-6 SEC) dropped to the No. 4 seed in the SEC Tournament and will face the winner of Thursday's Alabama-South Carolina game at 3:30 p.m. Friday in New Orleans in the tournament quarterfinals.

“I don't think our confidence is ever going to be a problem,” said Florida junior Erik Murphy, who added 14 points and tied a season high with eight rebounds. “We've got a bunch of confident guys on this team. We haven't been playing too great and hopefully we can start putting it together.”

Young pulled Florida within 59-55 with 9:02 remaining on an inside hook shot. From there, though, Kentucky clamped down defensively. Florida missed its next eight shot attempts, a stretch that included a partially-blocked 3-point attempt from Murphy, a fall-away 3-point attempt in the corner from Kenny Boynton and a drive to the basket from Walker off the glass that rimmed in an out.

By the time Walker broke Florida's scoring drought with a driving layup with 59 seconds left, Kentucky had extended its lead to 70-59 and sealed the game.

“I thought we had great shots, as good of shots as you are going to get against them,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

The Gators shot 27.3 percent from 3-point range (6-22) and were just 2 of 11 from 3-point range in the second half.

“Some shots didn't fall today,” Murphy said. “I don't think we necessarily took a lot of bad shots. Some of them didn't fall and you have to give credit to their defense.”

Kentucky (30-1, 16-0 SEC) won its 22nd straight and became just the third SEC school since 1970 to finish with a perfect conference season. Kentucky teams also went 16-0 in 2003 and 1996.

Freshman center Anthony Davis had another big day for Kentucky inside, finishing with 22 points, 12 rebounds and six blocked shots. Terrence Jones added 19 points for the Wildcats.

“They are just a really good team in all facets,” Walker said. “They defend. It's tough to play them.”

On Senior Day, Walker finished with eight points and five rebounds on 3-of-11 shooting from the floor. It was a struggle for all of Florida's guards. Kenny Boynton, who didn't start because he showed up late for a team meeting, had just seven points. Freshman Bradley Beal had five points and seven rebounds on a 1-of-10 shooting day.

“It was one of those days where Kentucky's length definitely caused us some problems,” Donovan said. “It did with Patric under the basket. I thought we actually shot the ball better in the first half and we moved the ball better in the second half. We got much better looks in the second half and we shot the ball for a better percentage in the first half.”

It was the first time Florida hosted a No. 1 team at the O'Connell Center. Jones dominated inside early, scoring eight straight points to help Kentucky build an 8-2 lead.

But Florida got back into the game quickly with back-to-back 3-pointers from Walker and Murphy. Then, Young made an inside layup to give Florida a brief 14-13 lead.

Kentucky answered with a 15-2 run, threatening to break the game open. Kentucky sixth man Darius Miller hit a pair of jumpers to start the run, and Kyle Wiltjer hit a 3-pointer to extend Kentucky's lead to 28-16.

An inside layup from Jones put Kentucky ahead 38-22 with 4:10 left in the first half, but the Gators closed the first half with a 10-2 run. Walker and Boynton sparked a UF run with a pair of 3-pointers. Young's inside dunk with 1:45 left cut Kentucky's lead to 40-32 at halftime. The Gators had a chance to cut into the lead more, but a Murphy 3-point attempt rimmed out and Boynton took an ill-advised drive in the lane that was blocked by Davis.

The Gators carried that positive momentum into the first five minutes of the second half. Beal hit a 3-pointer to cut Kentucky's lead to 42-37, then Young followed with a three-point play to cut Kentucky's lead to 44-40 with 18:21 left in the second half. Young later beat Kentucky downcourt for a breakaway dunk, cutting Kentucky's lead to 46-44 with 16:30 left and sending the O'Dome crowd into a frenzy.

But Young's big effort and a 14-to-7 assist-to-turnover game wasn't enough for Florida to avoid its fifth loss in its last eight games. Florida's three-game losing streak is its first since closing the 2009-10 regular season with three straight losses.

“I'm just hopeful that at the right time our guys can understand what is to be taken from the experiences that they've gone through up to this point and time,” Donovan said. “And if they really, really buy into and are committed, and that's the biggest thing, the commitment to not only work hard but the commitment of this is what needs to be done collectively as a group.”

Three questions

1. Can the Gators get off to a better start and keep from playing uphill after poor starts in their last two games against Georgia and Vanderbilt?

Florida trailed 8-2 early and were down by as many as 16 points with four minutes to go in the first half. But the Gators made enough runs to get back into the game in the second half.

2. Can Florida get Kentucky center Anthony Davis into early foul trouble?

Davis had just one foul the entire game, playing smart while scoring 22 points. He let Patric Young get some points inside at the expense of drawing some fouls. And Davis still contested enough inside shots to block six shots, including an inside hook shot from Young.

3. Can the Gators do a better job defending the 3-point line after allowing Kentucky to shoot 9 of 15 from 3-point range earlier this season at Rupp Arena?

Kentucky shot 5-of-12 from 3-point range. The 3-point line wasn't as much of a factor for the Wildcats, though Terrence Jones hit a back-breaking 3-pointer to put Kentucky ahead 64-55 with 7:42 left. Davis also hit a 3-pointer in the second half, but Doron Lamb was held to just five points on 1 of 3 shooting from 3-point range.

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