On the final game of the SEC regular season, the Kentucky Wildcats (21-10, 12-6 SEC) battled back from the brink of defeat to bolster their NCAA tournament hopes and seal a signature win, defeating the No. 11 Florida Gators 61-57 at home.
Senior Erik Murphy topped the stat sheet for the Gators (24-6, 14-4 SEC) with 17 points and a career best, team leading 11 rebounds. Casey Prather played 24 minutes off of the bench and tied his career high with nine rebounds and two blocked shots while scoring four points. Patric Young scored in double figures for the 18th time this season, tallying 10 points.
Archie Goodwin led the Wildcats with 16 points, aided by strong play down the stretch, netting six of UK’s final 11 points despite shooting just 6 of 12 from the free throw line. Forward Alex Poythress notched nine points and 12 rebounds, while foul troubled Willie Cauley-Stein added to a balanced effort with six points, eight rebounds and four blocks in 25 minutes.
Florida led by seven points (57-50) with 7:38 remaining in the second half, but failed to score at all for the remainder of the game, squandering the lead and coming up short in hostile Rupp Arena once again. The Gators have not beaten Kentucky in Lexington since 2007.
The Gators fell behind early on thanks to an 11-2 Kentucky run over the course of the first four minutes of the game. After starting 1 of 7 shooting from the field, the Gators heated up thanks in large part to 11 first half points from Erik Murphy and a 9-0 Florida run to tie the game up in the closing minutes of the opening stanza. The SEC rivals entered the locker room tied at 31-31, marking the first time either school has been deadlocked at the halfway point this season.
Florida head coach Billy Donovan was not pleased with the play of Murphy after the opening tip, but says he played better as the game went on.
Murphy and Kenny Bonyton combined for 20 of the team’s 31 first half total points.
Kentucky started the second half with a strong press and well-rounded play, but a pair of fouls near the six minute mark of the half sent Willie Cauley-Stein to the bench with four fouls. With Cauley-Stein absent from the floor, the Gators constructed an 8-0 run against the exposed Kentucky defense, leading to a risky decision by Wildcats head coach John Calipari to substitute the forward back onto the floor with 11:16 remaining in the half.
The run was stretched to 21-6 over the next three minutes, giving the Gators their largest lead of the game at 57-50 after consecutive 3-pointers by Erik Murphy and Scottie Wilbekin. From that moment on, Florida’s offense evaporated entirely and Kentucky pieced together an 11-0 streak to seal the deal on Senior Day.
“I have had big moments in my college career, but that one was probably my biggest one because we needed that win more than anything to keep our hopes alive,” said senior guard Julius Mays, tallied 13 points and iced the conference clash with a pair of free throws in the final seconds. “I told coach when we went into that timeout that I wanted the ball. He didn’t draw the play the way I ran it, but I wanted that ball and I wanted to shoot those free throws.”
John Calipari criticized his team’s effort after back to back road losses against Arkansas and Georgia, but was pleased with Kentucky’s fighting spirit.
“In the last seven minutes, when it was in doubt, they swam like heck. When you’re going to drown, if you want to die, don’t swim. If you want to live, the life raft is over there, you’ve got to swim to it. As a matter of fact, it’s kind of breezing away from you, so you’re going to have to swim real hard, and they did,” said the Kentucky head coach.
In games decided by five points or less, the Gators have compiled a record on 0-3. Following the disheartening loss, Donovan stressed the need for players to step up in clutch situations.
UF is 5-4 away from the O’Connell Center in the 2012-2013 campaign and close the regular season with three losses to Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky in their final six games. The team’s 14-4 record in conference play is still even with the bar set by Orange and Blue in the 1966-1967 season for the program’s best record in SEC play.
With the top seed in the SEC Tournament, the Gators have one week off until they open the postseason against an opponent yet to be determined on Friday at 1pm. Kentucky clinched the second seed in Nashville and will play Friday evening.