Florida hung with the nation’s top-ranked team for most of Friday’s SEC Tournament quarterfinal game until, once again, the Wildcats found that extra gear needed to pull away. This time, it was a 14-2 run just under the 8-minute mark that sparked UK to a 64-49 victory at Bridgestone Arena .
Kentucky (32-0) advances to face the winner of Friday’s second quarterfinal game between Auburn and LSU. Florida saw its disappointing season end at 16-17 after beginning the year ranked in the Top 10.
“It was a good win,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Wasn't happy with how we started the game, but it was a good win. And the kids fought and guys played, did the stuff they had to do. Didn't shoot it well, still won.
“But the reality of it is, we didn't play with as much energy as Florida played with to start the game. And they came in and I told them at halftime, if that's what we have in store, like that's how we're going to do this, we're going to have some problems.”
The Cats overcome sluggish starts on both ends of the floor, allowing the Gators to shoot 45 percent and win the rebounding battle in the first half, but Kentucky cranked up its trademark defense and glasswork in the second half. Florida shot only 33 percent after the break, making just three field goals over the final 10 minutes of play, and UK finished with a plus-6 in the rebound column.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Aaron Harrison each scored 13 points to lead the Cats. Towns also grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds for his seventh double-double of the season. UK point guards Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis combined for 16 points, six assists, five steals and just one turnover on a day where the Cats coughed the ball up only seven times.
"The thing that's most impressive to me about their team is, with all the parity in college basketball, that they have maintained such a high level of play," Florida coach Billy Donovan said of the Cats. "I think that's a great compliment to John and his staff and those kids."
Florida got 15 points from Jon Horford, just two shy of his career scoring high, and 11 from Eli Carter. The Gators’ Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Fraizer, both dangerous outside shooting threats, finished a combined 2-for-14 and missed all five of their attempts from beyond the arc.
In this AllWildcats "Rapid Recap" feature, we touch on some of the night's highs and lows:
WHAT WE LIKED: Kentucky didn’t have its “A” game on Friday, but found ways to hold off a spirited effort by the Gators, who have much more raw talent than their record indicates. The Cats’ defense was not up to par in the first half, but resembled its stingy self in the second half. The unsung heroes of this game were point guards Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, who did a tremendous job of controlling the game’s pace and making sure the Cats didn’t compound their shooting woes (37.5 percent) with careless mistakes. UK finished with just seven turnovers leading to only four points for the Gators.
KEY MOMENT: With UK leading 50-45 at the 7:10 mark, Karl-Anthony Towns pulled down an offensive rebound and layed the ball in while drawing a foul. He hit the free throw to convert the old-fashioned three-point play, and the Cats were off and running on their decisive 14-2 run.
STAT OF THE DAY: The Gators, always thought of as a dangerous perimeter-shooting team, went 2-for-11 from beyond he arc.
BY THE NUMBERS:
3 – Made free throws in five attempts for Florida, a small total that frustrated Billy Donovan.
5 – Consecutive games with only single-digit turnovers for Kentucky.
20 – Times this season the Cats have held an opponent under 55 points.
32 – The longest winning streak in UK history (1954-55), tied on Friday.
1998 – The last time the Gators suffered a losing season.
QUOTABLE: “It was good to get a strong challenge today because this is how all the games are going to be for now on.” – Tyler Ulis on how hard Florida played UK in its first postseason game.
UP NEXT: Kentucky plays the winner of the Auburn-LSU game in Saturday’s semifinal round.