GAINESVILLE, Fla. — No. 1 Florida’s class of four seniors have been to three Elite Eights in three NCAA tournaments together, but Saturday’s accomplishment might have been its crowning moment to date.
The No. 1 Gators, led by point guard Scottie Wilbekin and forwards Casey Prather, Patric Young and Will Yeguete — all seniors — finished their undefeated run through the Southeastern Conference by dominating on Senior Day in a 84-65 victory over No. 25 Kentucky at the O’Connell Center.
Florida (29-2, 18-0 in the SEC) is the fourth team to finish undefeated in the SEC since the league expanded to 12 teams in 1991. The Wildcats had the other three teams in 1996, 2003 and 2012.
In 1996 and 2012, the Wildcats lost in the SEC tournament before winning the national championship; in 2003, they won the SEC tournament and lost in the NCAA regional final.
The Gators are the first team to go 18-0 in the SEC since the league went from a 16-game schedule to 18 games in 2013.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said the seniors’ sendoff before the game was one of the most emotionally charged he’s seen in his 17 seasons at Florida, and that he was concerned about how the team would respond.
“I was worried about our guys wanting it too bad,” Donovan said.
Donovan didn’t have to worry about that, at least not until the second half.
Florida took a 53-32 lead early in the second half, but the Wildcats (22-9, 12-6) had a major push left, scoring 15 unanswered points over the next several minutes.
The Gators seemed lost on offense, missing a handful of point-blank shots, and forward Casey Prather missed two free throws during the stretch.
Kentucky power forward Julius Randle sparked the Wildcats’ run, scoring eight straight points during the stretch. He finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
Center Dakari Johnson made a turnaround hook shot with about 12 minutes left, and the Wildcats had closed a 21-point deficit to 53-47.
That’s when Wilbekin took over in his last game at the O’Connell Center.
With 11:52 left, his step-back 3-pointer gave the Gators their first points since Prather’s lay-up six minutes earlier. He steadied the Gators’ offense even without scoring much, and his defensive presence on the perimeter stymied Kentucky’s comeback.
“You know, we played so hard and fought so hard to get it back, we can’t have that mental type of error,” Randle said. “(Wilbekin) made a great shot, though. Not to take credit from him, he made a great shot. That was a deep, deep three, but we still can eliminate that error. Hats off to him. He made a tough shot.”
The Wildcats’ inexperience showed when, as their comeback dried up and Florida started to hit shots again, their freshmen guards started to force shots. It was reminiscent of the first half, when Kentucky dug itself into a 21-point hole.
“My whole vision of this team is we’re going to get it and it’ll start this week when we’re in our (SEC) tournament,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
“Let’s start down there. Let’s do what we’re doing 10 minutes in a game, 12 minutes, let’s do it for 40 minutes. Let’s all commit to it.”
Wilbekin finished with 13 points, four assists and three rebounds. Patric Young led the Gators with 18 points and seven boards.
The Gators were 16-of-26 from the field in a dominant first half, going into the locker room with a 49-28 lead.
Calipari said his team’s shortcomings were partially to blame for getting in as deep a hole as it did Saturday, but as much as he’s lamented his team’s youth this season, he also recognized how valuable Florida’s senior presence was.
And on a day dedicated to those four seniors, they embraced it.
“No. 1 team in the country, at home on Senior Night, and a team that came out a little timid,” Calipari said, describing the matchup. “You’re going to be down 20, 25 points. Unfortunate, but they are that good and if you don’t come and play, you’re going to get smashed.”
NOTES: Florida has won 23 games in a row heading in to the SEC
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