Gators earn #2 seed for SEC tournament

LEXINGTON, Kentucky --- The Florida Gators spoiled Kentucky's Senior Day Sunday afternoon, doing what no Florida basketball team has ever done and securing a number two seed for the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament in the process. Florida's 79-64 victory over the Wildcats not only was the first time the Gators have ever beaten Kentucky four straight but it ensured the Gators will have the coveted first round bye for the SEC Tournament.

The win improved Coach Billy Donovan's Gators to 24-6 for the season, 10-6 in the SEC East, and it puts Florida one step closer to earning a first round NCAA Tournament game 60 miles from home in Jacksonville. Florida will play the winner of the Georgia-Arkansas game in the second round of the SEC Tournament Friday night and many experts believe that a win will all but ensure a number four seed in the NCAAs and a first round game before a very pro-Gator crowd in Jacksonville.

Kentucky, meanwhile, dropped to 19-11 overall and 9-7 in the SEC East. The Wildcats will face Auburn in Thursday's first round of the SEC Tournament.

Florida earned the win Sunday by shooting well (51.7 percent for the game) and forcing Kentucky into a horrible shooting day. Florida shot a sizzling 60 percent in the second half (18-30) while holding Kentucky to 37.9 percent for the game, 36.9 percent for the second half. Kentucky managed to hit just 25 percent from three-point range (6-24) for the game.

The Gators poured it on Kentucky through a balanced scoring attack with Lee Humphrey leading the way with 17 points. Joakim Noah turned in a second straight double-double with 15 points (ninth straight game in double figures) and 11 rebounds to go with four blocked shots. Al Horford had 13 points and nine rebounds, while Walter Hodge had nine points off the bench and Chris Richard had eight off the bench.

The Gators also did it with a dominating rebounding presence. Florida outrebounded the Wildcats, 39-27, including 15 offensive rebounds. Noah (5), Horford (4) and Richard (3) combined for 12 of Florida's offensive boards.

The contributions off the bench from Hodge, Richard and David Huertas were enormous for the Gators due to first half foul problems. Corey Brewer went to the bench at the 12:12 mark in the first half with his second foul and Taurean Green sat the final 9:57 after picking up his second.

Green's foul allowed Patrick Sparks to complete a three-point play that hacked Florida's lead down to 19-15 but Huertas came off the bench to nail a three from the corner for the Gators. He would contribute three offensive rebounds in the final minutes of the half, also.

Richard hit a short jumper with 7:19 remaining to put the Gators ahead 26-24, breaking a 7-0 Kentucky run. After Kentucky tied the game at 26-26, Hodge drilled a three-pointer to put Florida back in the lead and following five straight points by the Wildcats, he hit a fall-away jumper with 2:42 left to tie the game, 31-31.

Florida's Joakim Noah reachs over Kentucky's Brandon Stockton for a rebound during the first half. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

"It was an area of concern when we had (Corey) Brewer and (Taurean) Green in foul trouble," said Donovan. "We didn't get hurt that bad because they played small a lot."

Florida took a 34-31 lead into the half thanks to a Horford dunk off a nice entry pass from the top of the key by Humphrey.

Having survived the first half, the Gators overpowered Kentucky on the inside in the first six minutes of the second half to take total control of the game. Florida's first five points came on a three-pointer by Brewer and a fast break layup by Humphrey. The next 10 points all came from getting the ball inside. Noah got four, two on a back door cut with a perfect pass from Horford and two on a stickback with 16:35 left. Horford got a pair of free throws by getting inside on Kentucky's 6-10 center Randolph Morris and Richard came flying down the lane to tip in a missed shot. Horford's five-foot jumper with 14:34 remaining not only gave Florida a 49-39 lead but it effectively took the Rupp Arena crowd of 24,329 out of the game.

"We played them (Kentucky) in the SEC championship game last season, and it was basically a home game for them," said Horford. "We really took the crowd out of that game, so that was something we wanted to do today, too."

Horford had perhaps the play of the game late in the second half when he tipped an inbounds pass away from Morris, got control of the ball at midcourt and then drove to the hoop for a dunk. Morris fouled him from behind on the play and Horford stepped to the line to sink the free throw to put an exclamation point on a play that epitomized Florida's effort on the defensive end.

On the offensive end, Humphrey kept the Gators in command down the stretch, hitting 11 of his points including three three-pointers in the final 11:28 of the game. His three-ball with 4:05 left in the game stretched Florida's lead to 19 points (75-56) and started Wildcat fans moving in the direction of the exits.

"Florida went on that run to start the second half and we didn't really have an answer," said Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith. "(Lee) Humphrey opened it up for them in the second half with a couple of big threes."

Humphrey took 14 shots Sunday and continued to play with new-found aggressiveness on the offensive end of the floor. Always known as a stand and shoot marksman from beyond the arc, he has shown a willingness to take the ball to the rack ever since the second half of last Sunday's loss to Alabama.

"It was great to see Lee (Humphrey) letting it go and shooting it," said Donovan. "He's always taken threes but the biggest change I saw with him was the confidence. I was proud of how hard he worked. He was shooting the ball with a lot of confidence out there. He's gone beyond my expectations. Everything has gone beyond my expectations this season."

The Gators, predicted by some publications as the number 75 team in the nation in the preseason, tied the school record for most wins in the regular season with 24. The 2002-03 team also won 24 regular season games. The school record for wins in a season is 29, set in 1994 during the Gators' run to the Final Four and 2000 in Florida's run to the NCAA championship game.

Prior to Sunday's game, Kentucky had won eight straight Senior Days and 40 of the last 41. The win was Florida's fifth all-time in Rupp Arena and it gave the Gators a two-game winning streak going into the SEC Tournament.

"I think we all played hard today," said Noah. "When we play with that hunger, we're definitely a different team. Coach (Donovan) talks about the youth of our team. We are young, but we've been through a lot of experiences, both good and bad. We have to play with a level of humility if we want to do something special."

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