Florida finally got the best of Kentucky in an SEC championship game.
Four players scored in double figures and the top seed Gators survived a second-half comeback from the No. 2 seed Wildcats to complete a perfect 21-0 conference season with a 61-60 victory Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The Gators (32-2), who will take a 26-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament later this week, won their first league title since capturing three straight from 2005-2007.
Florida was rewarded for its outstanding run with the NCAA No. 1 overall seed. Based on going 18-0 against SEC foes during the regular season and the long winning streak, it seemed the Gators were already headed towards the tournament’s top overall seed. Sunday’s win, which was the first for the program in four tries against the Wildcats in conference championship games, cemented a brilliant 4 1/2-month stretch for the Gainesville school.
“We battled and fought and hung in there even when things weren’t going well for us. I’m proud of it, I’m excited about it,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan.
James Young knocked down a huge 3-pointer at the minute and a half mark to get Kentucky to within 61-60. That nearly erased a 16-point second-half deficit and was the closest the Wildcats had been since trailing 9-8 at the 15:27 mark of the opening half. On its final two offensive possessions, Florida had a turnover, then missed the front end of a 1-and-1 free throw opportunity twice on the same possession (Dorian Finney-Smith grabbed the offensive rebound on the first miss, then was long on his first charity shot).
Kentucky had one final chance for the go-ahead basket. The Wildcats ran a play for Young, but while driving to the basket the freshman slipped and fell and lost the ball. As several players scrambled for the loose ball, the buzzer sounded.
“That’s what they do. They’re (an) aggressive, driving team,” Donovan said of Kentucky. “Young was coming so fast, he got maybe a little bit off balance. It was a hard play. I thought our team, those guys were pretty locked in when the ball got loose and made a great effort play when time expired.”
The regular season champions looked poised to run away with the title, building a 54-39 lead on two dunks from Patric Young.
That cushion quickly evaporated as Kentucky got seven of Aaron Harrison’s game-high 16 points, including his second beautiful pull up jumper along the baseline of the day, and after Willie Cauley-Stein blocked a Casey Prather shot attempt, Harrison converted a lay up in transition to cap an 11-0 run and make it a 54-50 game.
It forced Donovan to take a timeout and after the break, Young and Cauley-Stein went a combined 3 of 4 from the line and Kentucky (24-10) was within one.
Michael Frazier, who along with Young paced Florida with 14 points, hit the last of his four 3-pointers, and Scottie Wilbekin (11 points) added a bucket to put the Gators ahead 59-53. The teams traded points until Kentucky’s Young hit his only field goal of the half with 1:31 left in the contest.
Wilbekin, who was the Florida player who jumped on the loose ball on the final play, followed his regular season player of the year honor by being named the tournament’s MVP.
“Obviously we came into this tournament wanting to win it. That was our goal. We accomplished that,” said Wilbekin.
Frazier was red-hot early on for the Gators. The sophomore guard nailed two threes, each on an assist from Wilbekin, within the first 2:16 for a 6-0 lead, forcing Kentucky to burn a quick timeout.
Frazier hit two more jumpers and had 11 early points, but Kentucky got a pretty mid-range jumper from Julius Randle and trailed 16-14 with about 11 minutes to go in the half.
Florida followed with 11 straight points and capped the run with a Wilbekin 3-pointer to go up 25-16 with just under nine minutes left.
The Wildcats got to within 25-19 on a three-point play from Alex Poythress, but Wilbekin hit a long three and Chris Walker came off the bench and his offensive rebound turned into a lay up and a three-point play and the Gators held a 35-21 advantage.
It was a 10-point halftime lead that Florida turned into a 46-30 cushion on a steal and lay up by Prather (11 points).
Florida will await the winner of the first round game between Albany and Mount St. Marys in the South region. After a 10th runner-up finish in its 38th SEC title game, Kentucky was seeded eighth in the Midwest region and will play No. 9 seed Kansas State in the second round.