Gators pick up record-setting win over Kentucky
Published: Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 2:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 8, 2014 at 9:06 p.m.
After players cut down the nets and the seniors kissed the Gator logo at center court, No. 1 Florida headed to the locker room to reflect on its 84-65 win over No. 25 Kentucky at the O'Connell Center.
SEC Tournament in Atlanta
* Top-ranked UF will play Thursday's winner of Missouri-Texas A&M in Friday's 1 p.m. quarterfinal in SEC tourney in Atlanta.
The Gators (29-2, 18-0 SEC) finished off a historic regular season Saturday by becoming the first team in Southeastern Conference history to make it through an 18-game schedule undefeated. Florida won its 23rd straight overall and 32nd straight at the O-Dome, making it through a home schedule unbeaten for the second straight season.
“For me as the coach it's the greatest regular season I've ever been a part of,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “What these players have done, going all the way back to the second game of the year with a depleted roster at Wisconsin, and then going to UConn and losing both point guards in that game and having to play a lot of our non-conference schedule somewhat banged up, guys not there … these guys have done a remarkable job.”
Florida raced to a 49-28 halftime lead and appeared headed for a laugher. But with Florida up 53-32 early in the second half, Kentucky (22-9, 12-6) made one last push to spoil UF's Senior Day. The Wildcats went on a 15-0 run, cutting UF's lead to 53-47 on a hook shot by freshman center Dakari Johnson.
But Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, as he's done all season, hit the big shot to change momentum. Wilbekin's 3-pointer extended UF's lead to 56-47 with 11:50 remaining. From there, the Gators maintained a lead of seven or more points the rest of the game.
“I couldn't ask for it to end any other way,” Wilbekin said. “Picture perfect. When I was sleeping last night, this was how I imagined it happening. It's sad that it's my last game here but I'm so happy right now.”
Florida's seniors all played prominent roles in the outcome. Senior center Patric Young scored a season-high 18 points and added seven rebounds. Senior forward Casey Prather scored 12 of his 15 points in the second half, overcoming a twisted ankle early to come up with big baskets in transition down the stretch. After Prather beat Kentucky down the court for a three-point play, extending UF's lead to 70-57, he drew a high-five from the bench from Donovan.
“Our guys get excited and I get excited for them,” Donovan said.
Wilbekin overcame first-half foul trouble to finish with 13 points and four assists, while senior forward Will Yeguete had five points and seven rebounds.
“When you come here as a freshman, you don't really know what to expect,” Yeguete said. “And when we look back, I don't think we thought about being in this situation as seniors. We've led this team and we've done a really good job staying together. Now we're just excited for postseason.”
Young fueled Florida early, scoring 11 of UF's first 26 points by consistently beating Kentucky's big men down the court. The 6-foot-9 center from Jacksonville was locked in early following UF's emotional Senior Day ceremonies.
“If anything, it really fired me up,” Young said. “I was excited to go after the whole ceremony, get the ball tipped up and get it going. My teammates found me. I knocked down some shots. I missed a few. Got fouled. My teammates were able to find me and I was able to make plays tonight.”
Kentucky couldn't play the role of spoiler. Freshman forward Julius Randle had 16 points and 10 rebounds for his 18th double-double of the season. But Kentucky couldn't get the ball inside enough and had some questionable shot selection down the stretch. Freshman twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison went a combined 6 of 21 from the floor for the Wildcats with seven assists and five turnovers.
“In the second half, we took the fight to them a little bit, we made a game of it,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Then, all of the sudden we take the two worst shots we've taken all season. Like, you've got to be kidding me. But that's what freshmen do.”
Florida, meanwhile, played with the poise of a veteran team. The Gators scored 28 of their baskets off 20 assists, finishing with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 20 to 10. Kentucky's assist-to-turnover ratio was 10 to 14.
Defensively, Florida held Kentucky to 34.8 percent from the floor in the first half and 45.1 percent for the game.
“We were unselfish,” Donovan said. “We moved it. We passed it. I thought we got out on the break. We got stops.”
Up next for the Gators is the SEC Tournament, where the Gators will play in the quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Friday against the winner of Thursday's 8-9 seed game.
Shortly following the game Saturday, UF's seniors held up a sign that read “18-0 and more to go.”
“Hopefully we can decompress here a little bit and get a little bit of time here and try to get ready for the next step,” Donovan said.
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.