The Wildcats trailed 54-39 with 11:03 remaining, but went on a 14-0 run to energize the crowd at the Georgia Dome and threaten Florida's 25-game winning streak.
After trading baskets down the stretch, Florida opened the door for Kentucky by missing the front end of consecutive one-and-one free throw situations. The Gators went only 7-for-17 at the line.
The Cats had possession with 14 seconds remaining, and the UK staff called timeout to set up a final play, but they failed to get a potential game-winning shot off when James Young slipped on a drive into the lane and time expired during a scramble for the loose ball.
"I took too much of a wide step, and I just slipped," Young said. "It just slipped away from us."
"There's a level of luck that comes into a lot of these situations," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "There just is."
Florida (32-2) became the first SEC team to ever go 21-0 in league play and the conference tournament. In doing so, the Gators secured their spot as the overall No. 1 seed in next week's NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky (24-10) took some big strides over the weekend in Atlanta, rolling past LSU and Georgia before giving Florida one of its best challenges of the season. The Cats had lost to the Gators by 10 in Lexington and by 19 in Gainesville during the regular season.
"What a game," UK head coach John Calipari said. "If you were watching that game, you had to get excited about college basketball. So proud of my guys. Had every chance to let go of the rope... They have stayed together. They have stayed as a unit and keep believing in each other."
Patric Young and Michael Frazier each had 14 points to lead Florida. Tourney MVP Scottie Wilbekin had 11 points and six assists, while Casey Prather added 11 points for the Gators.
Florida was shaky down the stretch, but built some nice cushion by hitting six of 13 shots from 3-point range in the first half to lead 40-30 at the break.
The one major advantage UK took into the game -- season-long rebounding dominance -- was negated by a strong team rebounding effort from Florida. The Gators finished with a 38-36 advantage on the glass, including five or more rebounds by five different players - Will Yeguete (7), Dorian Finney-Smith (6), Young (5), Frazier (5) and Prater (5).
Kentucky shot just 35 percent from the floor, but compensated with a 21-of-26 effort at the free throw line.
"For us to shoot 35 percent, folks, and be a second away from winning the conference championship is amazing," Calipari said. "It means we really showed a lot of fight."
The Cats got 16 points from Aaron Harrison and 13 points from James Young. Andrew Harrison and Willie Cauley-Stein each added 10 for UK, but its star, Julius Randle, was held to just four points on 1-for-7 shooting and saw his streak of double-doubles end at six.
Cauley-Stein, who was key during UK's surge, had a game-high 11 rebounds and five blocked shots.
• Kentucky leads the all-time series with Florida 94-37. The Cats dropped to 28-10 all-time in the SEC finals. The Gators are now 2-3 against the Wildcats in the SEC finals.
• Cauley-Stein recorded his fourth double-double of the season for UK and also became the third Wildcat in as many seasons to reject 100 or more shots .
• Aaron Harrison led the Cats with 52 points in the SEC Tournament, averaging 17.5 points per game. He and Randle earned spots on the all-tourney team.
• Andrew Harrison dished out 19 assists in three games at the SEC Tournament, the most he had over any three-game span during the season.
• Young has made at least one 3-pointer in 12 consecutive games.