NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Having beaten Florida on March 7 to complete a perfect 31-0 regular season, Kentucky found itself facing the Gators again just six days later to open the 2015 Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
Top-ranked Kentucky won the third meeting this season between the teams, too, eliminating Florida 64-49 and advancing to Saturday’s semifinals.
“I wasn’t happy with how it started, but it was a good win. The kids fought, did the stuff they had to do,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But the reality of it is, we didn’t play with as much energy as Flroida played with to start the game.”
Florida defeated Alabama 69-61 in the SEC Tournament on Thursday to advance to Friday’s quarterfinals knowing they had to upset Kentucky to keep their slim NCAA Tournament dreams alive.
The third matchup of the season proved to be a slugfest as Kentucky (32-0) ended the first half with a slim 31-27 lead over Florida (17-17).
But Kentucky began to push away early in the second half. Up 33-31, the Wildcats outscored the Gators 9-0 to grab a 42-31 lead, its largest of the game at that point. Freshman guard Tyler Ulis swished two free throws, freshman forward Trey Lyles hit a jump shot and sophomore guard Aaron Harrison made two free throws followed by a 3-pointer to force a Florida timeout.
During the three-minute stretch, Florida missed all three shots from the field and had two turnovers.
“It’s been an incredible learning experience for me,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “From the standpoint as a coach, it was a real challenge this year to get them to be a team. They never really wanted to deal with the truth. I’m not sure even today that they are willing to deal with the truth.
“I think it was a team a little bit more wrapped up in themselves. They didn’t quite understand the level of sacrifice needed.”
A 3-pointer by senior center Jon Horford stopped the bleeding and the Gators went on a 7-2 run to trim their deficit to 44-38 with 11:51 to play.
The game remained close before Kentucky freshman center Karl-Anthony Towns provided some breathing room with an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 53-45. Two free throws by Lyles pushed the margin to 55-45 with 6:42 remaining.
A jumper by sophomore guard Andrew Harrison 2:25 gave Kentucky its biggest lead of 17 points at 64-47 and capped a 14-2 run.
“They have a will to win,” Calipari said. “And we have enough playmaker kind of players — Andrew to Aaron to Karl and now Trey. We’ve got a lot of guys that aren’t afraid to make the play. To be that kind of player, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are.”
Towns led Kentucky with a double-double of 13 points and 11 rebounds. Aaron Harrison added 13 points
Horford paced Florida with 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field. Junior guard Eli Carter added 11 points.
Despite a capacity crowd that was estimated at 95 percent Kentucky fans, Florida made the most noise early, jumping out to a 10-5 lead. The Gators hit five of their first seven shots to force a Kentucky timeout.
“I thought we had some moments,” Donovan said. “I thought we played very, very well. Certainly, we got off to a good start, which was positive.”
But during the course of the first half, Kentucky righted itself to retake the lead at 18-17 on a full-court steal and drive by freshman guard Devin Booker with 8:40 to play in the half.
From that point, neither team was able to secure control, though Kentucky did break away from a one-point game with 2:24 to play to build the four-point advantage at intermission.
Kentucky shot just 36 percent from the field (12-of-33) in the first half. Andrew Harrison led the scoring with seven points and Aaron Harrison added six. Towns scored only four points but had eight of Kentucky’s 19 rebounds.
Florida finished the first half shooting 45 percent from the floor (13-of-29). Hill and Horford led the Gators with six points each.
NOTES: Kentucky entered postseason play on the heels of a 31-0 perfect regular season. It
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