LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Florida had the same plan when it was trailing and when it pulled ahead. The third-ranked Gators just wanted to maintain their composure.
That steady approach turned into a big win at one of college basketball’s most hostile venues.
Scottie Wilbekin scored 23 points, including five critical free throws down the stretch, and Florida rallied for a tense 69-59 victory over No. 14 Kentucky on Saturday night in a matchup of the Southeastern Conference’s top teams.
"It was just one of those games where you have to kind of stay the course," Gators coach Billy Donovan said.
Casey Prather had 24 points on 8-of-9 shooting as Florida tied a school record with its 17th straight win.
Trailing 45-38 with 11:12 remaining, the veteran Gators (23-2, 12-0) turned to their best players down the stretch of their first victory at Rupp Arena since 2007. Wilbekin went 11 of 12 at the line, including two free throws after Kentucky coach John Calipari was whistled for a technical with 8:14 left.
"I feel like I’m always confident," said Wilbekin, who was 5 of 10 from the field. "When the ball’s in my hands, I feel like I have to make a play. I try to get to the basket or get the best shot for our team."
Patric Young added 10 points, including two three-point plays during a 13-3 spurt that put the Gators ahead for good.
Florida shot 60 percent in the second half and 44 percent (22 of 50) overall while controlling every major statistic except rebounding.
Calipari said he didn’t know what he said to draw a technical foul, but suggested Wilbekin’s free throws "could have" swung the game.
"I don’t know what he heard me say with my back to him, so you have to ask him," Calipari said.
Andrew Harrison scored 20 points for Kentucky (19-6, 9-3), which had won 22 consecutive home games.
Prather’s three-point play with 38 seconds remaining helped complete Florida’s rare road sweep of Kentucky and Tennessee in the same week.
Kentucky outrebounded Florida 31-28 but couldn’t grab an errant shot at the biggest moments, especially on the offensive end. The Gators took advantage for a 12-8 edge in second-chance points and basically controlled the paint, outscoring the Wildcats 34-22.
James Young added 19 points for the Wildcats, who shot 48 percent but didn’t score in the final 1:55. Julius Randle had 13 points and 13 rebounds.
Florida will host Kentucky in the rematch on March 8, but the victory puts the Gators in firm control of the conference race. It also strengthened their resume for a possible No. 1 seed in next month’s NCAA tournament.
Florida’s experience and poise — especially before a loud, partisan crowd and a prime-time audience — proved to be the difference against Kentucky’s youth, especially in pressure moments throughout the second half. The Gators improved to 3-2 against ranked teams.
"We were just trying to stay in the moment," Patric Young said. "We knew that they were going to throw punches and we were going to do the same thing. There was a lot of time left in the game. Our main focus was to stay with our principles and stay together."
The first half certainly lived up to the hype with seven ties, six lead changes. Kentucky held the largest edge at just seven points, which Florida whittled to 31-28 at the break. Randle had 10 points at halftime.
The game remained close until Patric Young began the pivotal run with the first of two big three-point plays at the 10:41 mark. Wilbekin helped with floor leadership in which he forced the action and drew fouls or found open teammates.
Once ahead, the Gators limited the Wildcats’ opportunities, particularly in the final minutes when Kentucky was forced to take long shots.