Florida tops Kentucky for 17th straight win

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — After No. 14 Kentucky held Florida to 10-of-30 shooting from the field in the first half, point guard Andrew Harrison said the Wildcats played their best half defensively of the season to date.

Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin figured it out, though, and led the No. 3 Gators through the wilderness and to a 69-59 win at Rupp Arena on Saturday night.

Wilbekin had 18 second-half points and finished with 23 points, making 11 of 12 free throws. He also had two assists and was more active than that number reflects in opening up the Wildcats’ half-court defense and exposing holes that were not there in the first 20 minutes.

“I feel like I’m always confident,” Wilbekin said. “When the clock gets down to the lower seconds and the ball’s in my hand, I feel like I’ve got to make the play. I try to get to the basket or just get the best shot for our team.”

Florida (23-2, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) has won 17 games in a row. Its last loss was Dec. 2 to Connecticut.

Kentucky (19-6, 9-3) was hot early in the second half. An 11-2 run gave the Wildcats a 45-38 lead with 11:11 to play. Harrison had just connected from the field, and given that he and shooting guard Aaron Harrison had been 1 of 12 from the field at that point, getting production from either of their two starting guards could have ignited a bigger run.

But Florida forward Patric Young scored on consecutive possessions in the post and Wilbekin fed him again for a three-point play to give the Gators a 47-46 lead with 8:37 to play.

“We lost to a good team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I’m not happy. We lost to a good team, but we had our chances, and we’re not ready to win that kind of game, and I told them that. So we’ve got to understand and listen and not blame each other. Take responsibility. If a guy outplayed you, admit it: ‘The guy outplayed me.'”

ESPN’s College GameDay pregame show was in town to rally Kentucky’s fans, and the capacity crowd was the loudest it has been in Rupp Arena in recent memory from the opening tip. The crowd reached perhaps its loudest a minute into the game when forward James Young hit a 3-pointer to give the Wildcats a 5-0 lead.

But Florida quickly responded and took a 10-7 with 14:15 to go. It would be the Gators’ largest lead of the first half.

They could not shake the resilient Wildcats despite Kentucky’s lack of an offensive rebound in the first 13 minutes and Florida forward Casey Prather’s play before the half ended. He had 12 points and three steals in the first 20 minutes, making all four shots from the floor.

Before Florida scored the final four points of the half, Kentucky had gone on a 10-1 run for a 31-24 lead, its largest of the game.

The Wildcats’ half-court defense in the first half forced Florida into 10-of-30 shooting from the field. In the second half, though, the Gators were 12 of 20 from the floor (60 percent).

“I think it was our communication,” Young said. “We have, on pick-and-rolls, great defensive big guys like Dakari (Johnson) and Willie (Cauley-Stein) who can switch. But me, I have to communicate better with them. I put that on myself.”

Saturday was Young’s fourth game in Rupp Arena as a visiting player (his ninth game against Kentucky regardless of site) and it was the first time he has left Lexington’s historic arena a winner.

“It was surreal,” Young said. “I couldn’t believe it. When we were walking off the court, it didn’t seem real. It was so hard for us. Last year, we let it slip away. Years before, we weren’t even in the game. It’s huge, especially when you are the underdog. I was really thankful that we were able to get it done.”

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