GAINESVILLE — Top-ranked Kentucky has done just about everything imaginable in the last few years but one thing the Wildcats hadn’t done was win at Florida, unable to beat the Gators in Gainesville since March 4, 2012.
UK rallied in the second half for a 68-61 win on Saturday night, after trailing at the break for the first time since early January, to up its record to a perfect 23-0 overall, 10-0 in SEC play.
Florida (12-11, 5-5) took another hit in fading NCAA Tournament hopes after a Final Four berth last season and three straight Elite Eight trips in the years before that.
UK lost all three meetings with the Gators last season.
“We definitely took this personal,” said UK guard Aaron Harrison, who led all scorers with 23 points. “We talked about it and we did not want to lose (again) here.”
UF played virtually all of the second half without leading scorer Michael Frazier, who suffered an ankle injury late in the first half and tried to come back early in the second half before being shut down. Frazier had 10 points before getting hurt.
Gators coach Billy Donovan inserted him briefly in the second half, but after Harrison hit a 3-pointer he took him back out.
“I appreciated him trying,” Donovan said. “But he wasn’t able to help us.”
The difference of the game was clearly at the free-throw line. Kentucky made 21 of 22 foul shots. Florida made just 7 of 14 — including just 2 of 6 down the stretch when the Gators were trying to stay in the game.
“We’ve got to get in the gym and work on free throws, we still had a chance though, even though we missed free throws and the plays just didn’t go our way,” said Dorian Finney-Smith, who led UF with 16 points.
UK coach John Calipari said the target of being No. 1 is starting to be felt.
“We’re in a championship fight every time we walk into a building,” Calipari said. “So they are beat down a little bit.”
Kentucky rebounded in the second half, however, to answer the Gators’ challenge.
UK made five of its first seven field-goal attempts to open the second half. Forward Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 19 points, hit a jumper that gave the Wildcats a 34-33 lead with 17:34 left to play. It was UK’s first lead since 2-0 to open the contest.
After just one lead change in the first half, the two went back and forth to open the second. Florida guard Eli Carter got a bucket in the lane to put the Gators, which won all three meetings last year and four of the last five, back on top.
Harrison hit a 3-pointer for UK and the ‘Cats led 37-35. Carter responded with a 3-pointer of his own to put UF back in the lead.
Harrison made his third bucket behind the arc to give the ‘Cats a 42-38 margin. Florida answered with a 6-0 run of its own, guard Chris Chiozza’s layup on the break put the Gators up 44-42 with 12:33 to go.
But UK forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who totaled 13 points, scored seven of Kentucky’s nine points during a run that put the Wildcats on top to stay after seven second-half lead changes. His free throws made it 51-48 with nine minutes remaining.
Florida kept it close but Harrison’s triple made it 55-50. Gators point guard Kasey Hill got a layup, missed two free throws then made a pair between a jumper by UK guard Devin Booker and it was 57-54 with 4:43 left.
Gators guard Chris Chiozza missed a 3-point attempt, Cauley-Stein got a rebound and was fouled at the other end and hit a pair of free throws with 3:18 left. Finney-Smith made it 59-57 on a 3 but Harrison made two foul shots.
Carter’s layup in the lane cut it back to 61-59 with 2:21 left and Andrew Harrison was called for a charge to give UF the ball and a chance to regain the lead at 1:54.
Jon Horford was fouled at 1:41 but missed a pair of free throws while Towns made a pair for UK to make it a four-point contest.
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