Quick Hitters: No. 1 Florida nips ‘Cats, caps perfect SEC sweep
ATLANTA — Here are seven quick thoughts off No. 1 Florida’s 61-60 victory over Kentucky in Sunday’s thrilling SEC final, clinching the Gators’ unblemished run as both regular-season and conference tournament champions (21-0).
1. It’s weird how being the "No. 1 overall seed" for the NCAA tournament doesn’t really bolster that team’s chances of reaching the Final Four — compared to the other three top seeds.
It’s not like the tourney committee will assign Florida with the weakest 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. seeds, across the board. Conference alignments and travel concerns carry greater weight when creating each regional bracket.
The only real perk for the Gators, as the No. 1 overall seed: They’ll have their choice of uniform color before every tourney game.
2. Florida got a gift from the basketball gods on the most crucial play of Sunday’s game:
With the Gators clinging to a one-point lead with six-plus minutes left, Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison slipped when trying to get through an off-ball screen … allowing Michael Frazier II (14 points) to drain an unfettered triple, boosting his team’s lead to four.
Prior to that play, the Wildcats were on the tail end of a 21-8 run.
The gods were also smiling on Gator Nation during the Wildcats’ final possession: Trailing by one with five seconds remaining, freshman James Young fell to the ground before attempting a potential game-winner.
The buzzer sounded with the loose ball flailing toward midcourt.
3. A media cohort shared this nugget at press row: Florida hasn’t trailed by more than 11 points in any of its 34 games. If true, that’s a testament to the Gators’ relentless intensity and infectious on-court chemistry for every outing.
Those intangibles certainly help compensate for Florida’s middling categorical rankings involving points (ranked 181st), rebounding (131st) and assists (117th) heading into Sunday (stats source: ESPN).
4. There’s an old media saying with pro basketball: In the NBA, every team makes a run.
So, it only makes sense that Kentucky’s band of NBA-quality freshmen and sophomores would eventually rally from a 14-point deficit.
The Wildcats actually had four chances to hit game-tying or go-ahead shots in the second half — with Aaron Harrison (missed three-pointer), Willie Cauley-Stein (missed free throw), James Young (missed jumper) and Andrew Harrison (missed running layup) coming up short in the final minutes.
5. Who knew that Gators forward Will Yeguete was so adept at passing?
At the midway point of the first half, with Florida up four points, tourney MVP Scottie Wilbekin (11 points, six assists, two steals vs. Kentucky) hit Yeguete with a perfectly timed pass as he motored through the lane.
But instead of going up for a shot, Yeguete laced a precision touch pass to Casey Prather, who nailed a contorting and-one shot from the left side.
If this were a hockey game, Wilbekin would have garnered an assist for setting the beautiful play in motion. Two minutes later, he busted a three-pointer, pushing the Gators’ lead to nine.
6. Sure, Kentucky has its share of high-quality rim protectors (Julius Randle, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson). But that doesn’t excuse the Wildcats, on the whole, from letting Wilbekin freely enter the paint on numerous occasions.
Speaking of which … Gators forward Dorian Finney-Smith nearly brought the house down (4:08 left in first half) with an uber- athletic dunk attempt — over three Wildcats — that clanged lock off the back rim.
If executed, it would have been the play of the weekend — hands down.
7. Florida has an interesting knack for bringing out the worst in Kentucky, which shot a wretched 34 percent in the first half. At the intermission, Randle, Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison were a combined 3 of 14.
On the flip side, the Wildcats (a No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region) were unusually proficient at the charity stripe, making 10 of 14 free throws in the first half.
For the day, UK made 21 of 26 free throws.
This might have been one of the greatest SEC finals in tournament history — a game that Florida fans will cherish for years to come.
However, as the Gators were cutting down the nets at 5:53 p.m., before a horde of orange-clad fans, a singular thought emerged:
It’s funny how power-conference title clashes can mean everything and absolutely nothing at the same time.