No. 5 Kentucky 69, Florida 66
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kentucky keeps coming up with new ways to maintain its dominance over Florida.
Kelenna Azubuike scored 18 points and the fifth-ranked Wildcats rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to beat Florida 69-66 on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats (18-2, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) beat Florida (14-6, 6-3) for the eighth straight time and 10th in 11 games. The Wildcats hold a three-game lead in the SEC East over second-place Florida with seven games remaining.
“I don’t know if you can call it a rivalry,” Florida junior Matt Walsh said, “until we win some. I’ve never beaten Kentucky.”
Kentucky’s streak against the Gators has spanned the gamut from the sublime (a 70-55 romp in 2003, when Florida was ranked No. 1) to the ridiculous (scoring the final 11 points in a three-point win last season).
On Tuesday, it was more of the same. Florida, which routed then-No. 11 Alabama by 31 points on Saturday, looked to be in control against Kentucky as well, leading by 11 points in the first half and by nine with 16:57 left.
But Kentucky scored 13 of the next 15 points to go ahead 47-45. The Wildcats took the lead for the first time since early in the game when Rajon Rondo threw a behind-the-back pass to Ravi Moss for a lay-in with 13 minutes left.
The Wildcats went ahead for good at 53-52 on Azubuike’s 3-pointer with 9:52 left and held the lead thanks in good measure to the play of Rondo, their freshman point guard.
The 6-foot-1 Rondo had 14 points, seven rebounds and four assists. He also helped shut down Anthony Roberson, the SEC’s second-leading scorer, in the second half, when he had eight mostly meaningless points after scoring 15 in the first half.
Rondo, a 50 percent free throw shooter, even went 8-of-10 from the line. Kentucky, which entered the game shooting 65.8 percent from the line, went 18-of-24 (75 percent) against the Gators.
Rondo “is quick enough to make Roberson work harder,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “After halftime, he figured out how to guard him.”
Kentucky only had three second-half turnovers after committing eight in the first half.
Kentucky led 64-54 after a three-point play by Azubuike with 3:37 left. Florida came within four points with a minute left and had two chances to pull closer, but Walsh and Roberson each missed 3-point attempts.
Chuck Hayes, who had 11 points and nine rebounds, made two free throws for Kentucky with 26 seconds left and Moss went 1-of-2 from the line with 10 seconds left, sealing the Wildcats’ eighth straight win since a home loss to Kansas.
Florida coach Billy Donovan blamed the loss on his team’s inability to make it to the free throw line where the Gators went 8-of-13.
“They made more free throws than we took,” Donovan said. “Instead, we took 14 3s in the second half. I think some of those were late and we had to take those to try to get back into the game.
“I don’t feel like our guys let up. I thought maybe we made some bad plays, but I don’t think we let up.”
Walsh scored 18 points for Florida. The Gators, who outrebounded Alabama by 25, were outrebounded 34-27 by Kentucky.
Led by Roberson, Florida shot 54.2 percent in the first half and took a 36-29 lead.
Kentucky has won 18 straight games against SEC competition, but Smith said the Wildcats don’t pay attention to that streak.
“That’s the past,” Smith said. “Once the game is over, everything that happened prior to that is history. We try to concern ourselves for the next task, which is getting ready for Georgia. It is good to be winning and we’re happy with it.”