Gators hold off Wildcats to win tournament title

Florida Gators center Patric Young (4) yells as guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) scrambles of the ball as the final buzzer sounds to end the second half of the SEC Tournament finals on Sunday in Atlanta, Ga. Florida defeated Kentucky 61-60 to win the championship.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 5:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 17, 2014 at 12:37 a.m.

ATLANTA — It came down to this. For Florida to end the heartbreak of recent SEC tournaments past, it needed one last stop, on last big defensive play.

So when Kentucky freshman guard James Young lost his balance and his dribble in the closing seconds of Sunday's SEC tournament title game, Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin hit the floor and pounced.

Wilbekin batted the loose ball away as the final seconds ticked off, and Florida held on for a 61-60 win over Kentucky to win its fourth SEC tournament title in school history and first since 2007.

“Scottie did a great job, just keeping in front of him and never letting him get loose,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Young was coming so fast, he maybe got a little off balance.”

Said Wilbekin: “I switched on (Andrew) Harrison, and I just wanted to play the best defense I could without fouling him or putting him on the line.”

For a Florida team that led the SEC all season in fewest points allowed, it was a fitting way to wrap up another championship. Florida is the first team since Kentucky in 2010 to win both the SEC regular-season and tournament titles.

“I think I would rather end the game on a stop than a last-second shot,” Florida senior center Patric Young said. “On a stop you can really look at every single guy instead of just one guy. It was pretty cool since it was a play we work on every single day in practice.”

Young and sophomore guard Michael Frazier II led the Gators with 14 points each, with Wilbekin adding 11 points and six assists. Wilbekin was named tournament MVP after averaging 13.3 points, 3 assists and 3.3 steals over three games.

“We couldn't do it without winning the championship and that's what's most important to me, winning the 'ship with these guys, hanging out every game with them, playing with them,” Wilbekin said. “It's just been a fun year for me.”

Florida (32-2) led by as many as 16 points in the second half and overcame a late Kentucky (24-10) rally to extend its school-record winning streak to 26 in a row. There were some nail-biting moments at the end, but Florida overcame two missed free throws on one-and-ones from both Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith with 23 seconds left by holding Kentucky scoreless in the final 1:31.

“We almost gave it away,” Young said. “Thank God we were disciplined and defended well enough to get it done.”

Florida went 7 of 17 from the free-throw line and scored just nine points in the final 13:05 of the game. Up 54-39 after a Young dunk with 11:05 remaining, Kentucky went on a 14-0 run, cutting Florida's lead to 54-53 on a free throw from center Willie Cauley-Stein.

“The game got slowed,” Donovan said. “I liked it when the game was going up and down the floor. Because we went through a stint where we couldn't score, we could never get the press on.”

But Frazier hit a 3-pointer with 6:08 remaining to put Florida up 57-53 and allow the Gators to regain momentum. Wilbekin followed with a driving layup to put Florida up 59-53.

From there, Florida held on. Young provided a post basket late, a bank shot with 1:57 left to put Florida up 61-57. But James Young answered with a 3-pointer for Kentucky to cut Florida's lead to 61-60.

Despite the Kentucky run and UF missed free throws, Florida survived to improve to 7-1 this season in games decided by 5 points or less and 15-2 in games decided by single digits.

Last season, Florida lost 66-63 to Ole Miss in the SEC tournament final in a season in which the Gators finished 0-6 in single-digit games.

“We just tried to stick together as a team and maybe that's our experience from just being together in those games and losing those games,” Wilbekin said. “Just stay together, stay on the same page, huddle after every dead ball and try to really focus in on defense.”

The script flipped from UF's two first SEC tournament games, when the Gators had slow starts and strong finishes. Energized to play rival Kentucky, the Gators jumped to a 40-30 halftime lead. Frazier scored 11 of UF's first 12 points, making his first three 3-point attempts. With Young saddled on the bench with two first-half fouls, Florida also got a strong contribution off the bench from freshman forward Chris Walker, who finished with five points, two rebounds and a steal.

“I wish we had that energy in the second half,” Young said. “I think we were just ready for that clock to end, really, really ready for that clock to hit zero, weren't anticipating their run to be that big. But I'm just glad to get that win. One point, 20 points, a win is a win.”

FREE THROWS: Young and Frazier also made the All-SEC Tournament team. … Attendance for the final SEC tournament game in the Georgia Dome was 21,021. The mix was about 75 percent Kentucky fans, 25 percent Gator fans. … Florida improved to 4-6 all-time in SEC tournament final games and 4-3 in SEC tournament final games under Donovan. … Florida notched its first three-game season sweep of Kentucky in program history. … Kentucky had the advantage in free throws, 21-for-26 (80.8 percent) compared to Florida at 7-for-17 (41.2 percent). UF's 41.2 percent clip was a season low.

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