Kentucky held a 44-40 lead with 12 minutes to play, but behind the shooting of Matt Walsh and the rebounding of David Lee the Gators closed the game with on a 30-9 run to win the championship.
Florida's Matt Walsh (44) battles Kentucky's Adrian Moss, left, in the second half of the championship game of the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on Sunday, March 13, 2005. Walsh was voted the tournaments MostValuable Player. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
"We started executing and screening," Walsh said. "Our bigs got me open all day. Anthony (Roberson) made some good passes to me all day and got me in good position. I had the easy part--just hitting the open shots. They get me open and get me the good looks so it was more of my teammates opening it up."
Walsh, who finished the championship game with 26 points, was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
Lee, who grabs 17 rebounds against the Wildcats, led the charge on the glass as Florida out-rebounded Kentucky 48-31.
"We were discouraged getting out-rebounded by Alabama," Lee said. "We got beat up front. The key to this game, just like the Mississippi State game, was transition defense and controlling the boards."
Lee was also named to the all-tournament team.
"We did a poor job of boxing out and it's been hurting us all year," said Kentucky senior forward Chuck Hayes. "That's been our Achilles Heal and we weren't able to get to the glass and box out. They sent four guys at a time. We were in there battling with their big guys and they just wanted it more."
In the Gators' wins over Mississippi State and Alabama they were able to get big leads early and they did the same thing against Kentucky. Lee started off the scoring for Florida with an offensive rebound and tip-in, which set the tone for the first half.
Florida attacked the glass on both ends of the court and pulled down 26 rebounds in the first half, compared to only 14 by Kentucky. The Gators had 13 offensive boards in the first 20 minutes for nine second-chance points while the Wildcats were limited to one shot nearly every time down the court.
David Lee #24 of the Florida Gators looks to pass under pressure from Patrick Sparks #22 and Randolph Morris #33 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC Men's Basketball Championship game at the Georgia Dome on March 13, 2005 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)>
After a Roberson three, Lee hit a baby hook on the low block and Adrian Moss finished an easy two off a penetrate and dish from freshman guard Taurean Green.
The Gators were up 9-2 at that point and continued to pound the backboards led by Lee, Horford and Richard. The Florida low post trio had 19 first half rebounds, five more than the Wildcats as a team.
"Richard and Horford are young players and they're aggressive and physical and that's something that hurt us," Smith said. "They really set the tone on the boards. Those two guys I was impressed with. I was impressed with their aggressiveness at the beginning of the game. They give them a real physical presence in there and they're quick leapers."
Florida held a 34-27 halftime advantage, but the Wildcats struck back in the second half. The Gators led 39-31 with just over 17 minutes to play when Kelenna Azubuike bulldozed Walsh for a steal then raced down the court and ran over Corey Brewer to draw a foul for a three-point play.
Freshman center Randolph Morris tied the game at 40-40 on a one-handed tip-in off a missed three by Ravi Moss. Morris had another put back on the Wildcats' next possession to give them their first lead of the game. Patrick Sparks hit a lay-up moments later to cap off a 15-1 Kentucky run and give the Wildcats a 44-40 advantage with 11:50 remaining.
With most of 24,408 fans in attendance on their feet cheering for the Cats, it appeared as if all of the momentum had shifted to Kentucky. However, the Gators turned to Walsh and the junior forward delivered in a big way.
Corey Brewer #2 of the Florida Gators shoots over Randolph Morris #33 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC Men's Basketball Championship game at the Georgia Dome on March 13, 2005 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Gators won 70-53. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)>
Walsh quieted the crowd with a three from the wing. On the other end of the court Horford blocked a Morris fade-away, then Walsh nailed came down and nailed a three from the corner to retake the lead at 46-44. After another defensive stop Roberson raced down the court and dropped in an easy two, forcing Smith to call a timeout to regroup.
"They played real well today," Hayes said of the Gators. "They got an early start on us and we had to chase them. In the second half we got a lead but we let it go. You've got to give them credit. They were tough."
Out of the timeout, the Gators got a stop and Walsh came off a screen for his third triple in two minutes. The next time down the court, Walsh was finally off target but Horford was there to run down the rebound. He dished it out to Roberson, who sank another three for Florida.
Kentucky struggled to knock down open shots on their end of the court while Walsh continued his hot shooting for Florida.
Brewer also added a couple of transition baskets to give Florida a 15-point lead with 4:30 to play. The Gators led 61-46 after a 21-2 run.
"I think it was more of what we didn't do," Hayes said. "We had some good shots but they weren't going in and sometimes it goes like that. We didn't execute and we got in a panic phase taking bad shots. And the open shots we did have just weren't falling."
At that point Florida slowed down offensively and made its free throws down the stretch to hold on to the big win.
Horford finished with seven points and nine rebounds, and Richard had six points and six rebounds. Freshman forward Corey Brewer, whose hard-nosed play gave the Gators a big lift throughout the tournament, had eight points and five rebounds.
Lee contributed nine points to go along with his 17 boards. Roberson struggled from the field today making only 3-11 shots, but he finished in double-figures with 10 points.
Azubuike, who was named to the all-tournament team, had 17 points to lead his team in that category. Morris had a team-high 10 rebounds to go with six points.
Turnovers were even at 14 apiece.
The win improved the Gators to 23-7 and Kentucky dropped to 25-5.
The Florida Gators hold up the SEC Championship trophy after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC Men's Basketball Championship game at the Georgia Dome on March 13, 2005 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Gators won 70-53. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
"I think they're very good," Smith said. "Today they beat us and when Walsh is playing like that and making shots, and then you've got Roberson, one of the best point guards in the country, and Corey Brewer has really come on and is playing real well for them... They're getting great play off the bench and those are the keys to playing in the tournament. I think they're going to do real well."
Head coach Billy Donovan of the Florida Gators waves to the crowd as he cuts down the net after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats in the SEC Men's Basketball Championship game at the Georgia Dome on March 13, 2005 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Gators won 70-53. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)