Cats rally on Senior Day, top Gators 70-67

Sophomores Gerald Fitch and Cliff Hawkins made clutch shots down the stretch to lead Kentucky past Florida...

LEXINGTON, Ky.  --- It was an emotional farewell to two seniors and a hearty welcome back for a third Kentucky player on Saturday at Rupp Arena.

Seniors Tayshaun Prince and J.P. Blevins savored a thrilling 70-67 victory over No. 8 Florida in their final home game as Wildcats, thanks in large part to a clutch 3-pointer by a rejuvenated Gerald Fitch with 33 seconds left.

Fitch, a sophomore guard, was back in action for the first time since Feb. 16. He had missed the last three games due to a series of disciplinary matters, but responded with 10 points, four rebounds and two assists off the bench against the Gators.

None of his shots were bigger than the go-ahead 3-pointer. Coming out of a timeout, Kentucky opted to use Prince as a decoy and set up a play for Fitch to curl around a screen by center Marquis Estill on the left wing. The Cats ran the play to perfection as Fitch broke free from Orien Greene and buried the shot to put UK ahead 68-67.

"It was the same play we ran at Tennessee (to send the game into overtime) and a couple of other times this year," Prince said. "I know everybody was expecting me to get the ball, for me to take the big shot as a senior in my last game here, but Gerald has hit that shot every time we've called it."

"That just shows that, even though I've been through so much, he still has confidence in me," Fitch said of UK coach Tubby Smith's decision to call his number when the game was on the line. "I'm trying to build it back up, and I think this is a good start right now.

"I know plenty of people question this team because so many incidents have happened and we haven't always played like we're capable of playing. But these incidents have pulled us together and we know we're capable of winning the NCAA Tournament."

Kentucky's Chuck Hayes blocked a late attempt by Florida center Udonis Haslem, and Cliff Hawkins --- a 57 percent free throw shooter on the year --- buried two at the line with 12.4 seconds left to help seal the victory.

The Gators had a final shot to send the game into overtime, but Matt Bonner's 3-pointer bounced off the rim.

The win gave No. 11 Kentucky (20-8, 10-6 SEC) the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in next week's league tournament in Atlanta. Florida (21-7, 10-6 SEC) dropped to the third seed and must play on Thursday in the opening round after being swept by the Cats this season.

"It was a war, a real battle for us," said Smith said, whose team overcame a blistering 8-for-10 shooting start by the Gators and an early 13-point deficit. "Our kids really recovered after giving up some open 3s early in the game... And to get the win today is really special. It's good to get the win for J.P. and Tayshaun, and I think our team really bonded today."

Florida led 27-14 at the 12:16 mark of the first half after hitting eight consecutive shots from the field to stun the crowd of 23,606 at Rupp Arena. The spurt included five 3-pointers -- two from Brett Nelson, two from Bonner and one from Justin Hamilton.

"I thought the first half, for a stretch, was the best offensive basketball we've played all year," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Kentucky never wavered, however, and made a run of its own sparked by Fitch coming off the bench. His inside basket, two free throws and 3-pointer highlighted a 17-4 run that pulled the Cats even at 31.

Prince hit a running jumper in the lane as time expired to keep UK within 41-39 at the half.

Kentucky opened the second half with a 11-2 run, including five of Keith Bogans' seven points on the day. Florida committed four of its 16 turnovers in the first three minutes of the half in falling behind 50-43.

"I think (Kentucky's) intensity coming out of the second half the first six to eight minutes was much better than ours," Donovan said. "I thought that was the key to the game."

The Gators recovered with a 15-6 run to inch ahead in the waning moments, but managed only one field goal --- a Nelson 3-pointer, his fifth of the day and part of a game-high 23-point effort --- in the final 4:28.

"I was pretty pleased the way we played defense tonight, but Tubby's always got great defensive teams and does a great job of teaching defense," Donovan said.

Haslem, the Gators' All-SEC center, was held to 11 points on 2-for-5 shooting from the field and 7-of-10 at the line. Smith credited Estill's aggressive defense and the Cats' execution of double-teams and traps as a key to the game.

Kentucky was led by Prince with 13 points. Fitch and Estill each followed with 10, while Hayes added nine. The Cats owned a 37-31 rebounding advantage (Estill 9), had a 24-7 edge in points off turnovers and outscored the talented Gator bench 30-0.

Blevins, who got a surprise starting assignment in honor of his final home game, had four points.

"All I wanted was a win," he said. "It definitely would have been a sour note to walk out of here today without a win, but I think the guys exemplified today what Kentucky basketball is all about."

"This should give us a big shot of confidence heading into the postseason," said Smith, who improved to 23-5 in the month of March. "We've had some trouble making clutch plays down the stretch this year, but today we made every play we needed to make to win the game.

"Today showed that when we band together, we can beat anybody."

Kentucky recorded its 12th straight 20-win season and won on Senior Day for the 37th time in the last 38 years.

AllWildcats Top Stories