No. 3 Wildcats take down Gators at home
On a day freshman-dominated Kentucky was honoring its seniors, sophomore Darius Miller was most responsible for making sure the Wildcats finished their season with a perfect home record.
The No. 3 Wildcats saw a big early lead slip away against Florida, but Miller got most of his 14 points in the clutch to help pull out a 74-66 victory and possibly cement a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Afterward, Miller warned that these close calls have got to stop with the postseason about to begin.
"That’s happened to us a few times this year," Miller said. "We really need to take care of that. It might not work against some other team."
The Wildcats (29-2, 14-2) had already clinched their 44th Southeastern Conference title outright with Vanderbilt’s loss to South Carolina on Saturday night. Florida (20-11, 9-7) may need to win a few games in this week’s SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn., to reach the NCAAs.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said he thinks the Gators belong there.
"I’m rooting for them," Calipari said. "They played hard, never quit. They went right at us."
Kentucky’s 18-0 home record ties the 1985-86 team for the best in program history. The last time the Wildcats reached 14 league wins was 2005.
Although there were plenty of standouts in this one for the Wildcats, who had five double-digit scorers, Miller made some of the most meaningful baskets, going 5 for 7 from the field, including three 3-pointers. He matched Eric Bledsoe as the game’s top scorers.
Miller’s third 3 early in the second half stopped a 9-1 run by Florida that had helped cut into a large early deficit.
He credits his more highly touted teammates, who sometimes will draw double-teams and give him better looks.
"Everybody’s focusing on them, so that gives me a little space to roam and be aggressive," Miller said.
Kentucky led by as many as 18 late in the first half, but Florida got a slew of uncontested baskets and cut it to 57-54 midway through the second after a 3-pointer by Alex Tyus, who led Florida with 12 points.
The Gators pulled within two when a layup by Vernon Macklin made it 60-58 with seven minutes left. Patrick Patterson answered with a dunk and John Wall followed with a 3 to give the Wildcats some breathing room.
"I think in the first half we certainly dug ourselves a hole," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Kentucky never trailed and began to pad the lead midway through the first half when Miller passed up a wide-open 3-pointer but dished it around to Bledsoe, who nailed the long jumper instead. Then, on the next trip down, Miller added his own 3, putting the Wildcats up 16-9.
Kenny Boynton answered for Florida by hitting a 3-pointer in transition.
"There is no moral victory for us," Florida forward Chandler Parsons said. "A loss is a loss. They are the third-best team in the country, and we feel that we can play with anybody on their home court and their hostile environment."
After Tyus hit a fade-away jumper to cut the Kentucky lead to 20-16 midway through the first half, the Gators didn’t get a field goal for more than five minutes while the Wildcats pulled away early with a 14-0 run.
Miller had five points in that stretch and Darnell Dodson added one of his two 3-pointers.
However, Bledsoe punctuated the run with the showstopping play of the afternoon — a reverse layup that he finished with his back to the basket while plummeting out of bounds. That gave the Wildcats their largest early lead at 34-18.
Florida cut the deficit to 41-31 at halftime.
Calipari typically starts three freshmen and one sophomore, but the team’s lone seniors, Mark Krebs, Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris, started and played the first five minutes. Also honored on Senior Day was usual starter Patterson, a junior who is expected to graduate in three years and will likely enter the NBA draft.
"I was just trying to hold back the tears," Patterson said. "I just kept looking at the fans, trying to soak it all in."
Wall, a freshman and near-lock for the draft as perhaps the No. 1 overall pick, joined those four in the starting lineup.
Wall finished with 11 points, including back-to-back driving layups in the second half that helped withstand the Florida comeback.