Florida 70, No. 4 Kentucky 53
ATLANTA (AP)—Matt Walsh cut down the net, put the bundle of nylon around his neck and savored the significance of the moment.
Florida had finally won the Southeastern Conference tournament—and beating Kentucky made it even more special.
Walsh scored 26 points, including consecutive 3-pointers that sparked a stunning 21-2 run, and the Gators routed No. 4 Kentucky 70-53 Sunday for their first SEC tournament championship.
“We wanted to take down the champ,” said Walsh, the tournament’s MVP. “I can’t imagine a better feeling than beating Kentucky for the championship.”
Florida (23-7) had beaten the Wildcats a week earlier in the regular season finale, and this one knocked them out of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky settled for the second seed in the Austin Regional and will open Thursday against Eastern Kentucky in Indianapolis.
The Gators also defied history, winning their first tournament title on their 40th try against the team that has defined success in this event. Kentucky (25-5) had won the last two tournaments, 10 of the past 13 and 25 in all—more than every other school in the SEC combined.
“We proved we’re a team that can really follow through when it counts,” said David Lee, who helped the Gators manhandle Kentucky on the boards. “There were times in March the last couple of seasons where we came up short in the big games.”
Florida was seeded fourth in the Syracuse Regional and will meet Ohio University in the first round Friday at Nashville, Tenn.
Even though the Georgia Dome resembled Rupp Arena South—Florida fans took up only one section in the crowd of 24,408—the Wildcats couldn’t fend off a team that’s playing its best basketball of the season at the perfect time.
The Gators have won seven in a row and certainly improved their positioning for the NCAA tournament.
“It was a long time coming,” Walsh said. “We’ve had some really tough losses to Kentucky in the past. This feels so good. It feels so good to go out and beat the top team.”
Heading into the NCAAs, Kentucky must bounce back from its worst loss ever in the SEC tournament.
“It’s just one game, but we didn’t play well,” coach Tubby Smith said. “Obviously, we’re going to have to play better to do well in the tournament.”
Florida led throughout the first half and well into the second, but Kentucky appeared to seize control with a 15-1 outburst that had its blue-clad fans in an uproar.
Randolph Morris scored on an offensive rebound with 12:32 remaining, letting out a yell after giving Kentucky its first lead of the game at 42-40.
After Florida turned it over, Patrick Sparks drove into the lane and flipped in another basket that pushed the Wildcats to a four-point lead.
But it was all Gators the rest of the way.
“Even when we made the run … we were still making mistakes,” Smith said. “We took the lead and shot selection became a problem.”
With two-thirds of Florida’s “Big Three”—Lee and Anthony Roberson— struggling at the offensive end, coach Billy Donovan began calling plays for Walsh. The Gators’ big men set up some monstrous picks, freeing him up for clear looks at the basket.
“We couldn’t get to him in time,” Kentucky’s Kelenna Azubuike said. “He doesn’t need that much space.”
Walsh buried an open 3-pointer to stem Kentucky’s momentum. After Morris put up an airball, Walsh hit another 3 from the corner to put Florida back in front at 46-44.
Roberson drove right by Kentucky freshman Rajon Rondo for a layup, the Wildcats turned it over, and Walsh again connected from beyond the arc to make it 51-44.
“We just started executing and screening,” Walsh said. “I did the easy part: hitting open shots. It was more my teammates setting me up than me doing anything special.”
Ravi Moss broke the run of 11 straight points with a 10-foot jumper, but that was merely a brief respite in Florida’s dominance. Roberson swished a 3, Walsh hit a leaner in the lane, Corey Brewer scored on a fastbreak layup, Walsh made one free throw, and Brewer scored on another drive to make it 61-46.
At that point, the Florida bench was hopping up and down, knowing the Gators had finally broken Kentucky’s stranglehold on the tournament. The Wildcat faithful began heading quietly for the exits.
With 20 seconds to go, Donovan called a timeout to give his starters— especially the Big Three—a chance to get one more standing ovation as they came off the court. When the horn sounded, Brewer hurled the ball roofward and leaped in the air at midcourt, pumping his right fist.
Kentucky shot only 37.5 percent from the field, including a dismal 2-of-19 outside the 3-point arc—depriving the Wildcats of one of their favorite weapons.
Florida did its best work on the inside. Simply put, the Gators outhustled and overpowered Kentucky on the boards, setting the tone in the first half with 13 offensive rebounds. They finished with a 48-31 edge, led by Lee’s staggering 17 rebounds and Al Horford adding nine.
The Wildcats need to get that corrected before the NCAA tournament, but Smith’s not sure they can.
“By halftime, I knew we had problems,” he said. “That’s something we’ve been dealing with all year long. We’re just not a very physical team.”
Azubuike led Kentucky with 17 points, but none of his teammates cracked double figures. Sparks missed all six of his 3-pointers and managed just four points.
“They just wanted it more,” Azubuike said.