Kentucky at Florida game preview
Florida appeared to receive some great preparation for the NCAA tournament in its latest game. It might get another challenge from a rival that's eager to live up to its early billing as a potential title-winning team.
The top-ranked Gators could wrap up the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament by claiming their first SEC tournament title in seven years and earning their third win over Kentucky this season Sunday.
Florida trailed by double digits for the first time since Nov. 12 in the first half of Saturday's semifinal against Tennessee. The Gators (31-2) then turned up their defensive intensity en route to a 56-49 victory.
They outscored the Volunteers 28-14 over the final 20 minutes while forcing them to miss 15 of 20 shots and commit 11 turnovers.
"This group has a resiliency and a competitiveness," coach Billy Donovan said. "We have our faults. We're not perfect. But I've never walked off the court saying, 'Wow, these guys didn't get after it, they didn't compete.'"
Donovan's team, winners of a school-record 25 in a row, might face another competitive game against a Kentucky team that's out to avoid another loss in this season's series. The Gators handled the Wildcats 84-65 at home in their regular-season finale March 8 and rallied from a seven-point deficit in the second half for a 69-59 win Feb. 15.
Casey Prather had a team-best 24 points on 8-of-9 shooting in that road victory, and SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin went 11 of 12 from the line en route to finishing with a career-high 23 points.
"I've had enough of Florida," Wildcats coach John Calipari said jokingly then added. "What a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job. ... It's almost an honor to play a team like that."
Florida has won 20 straight games against SEC opponents since a 66-63 loss to Mississippi in last year's tournament championship. The Gators haven't claimed that crown since a run of three in a row concluded in 2007, a season that also ended with a second straight NCAA title.
Kentucky, meanwhile, is seeking its third tournament championship in five seasons. The Wildcats (24-9) began the season as the nation's No. 1 team and was picked to finish first in the SEC in large part because of a high-profile freshman class.
Those young players have experienced some ups and downs, most notably a 3-4 stretch to end the regular season, but they've also helped Kentucky post two convincing wins in Atlanta.
The second-seeded Wildcats blew out LSU 85-67 on Friday and pulled away in the second half for a 70-58 over Georgia in Saturday's semifinal.
Aaron Harrison led the way with 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting. His twin brother, Andrew, had 12 points and a career-high nine assists, and Julius Randle recorded his ninth double-double in 10 games.
"I feel like our chemistry is getting better. We're becoming a better team, getting better every game," said Randle, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Unlike last year's 21-12 team, Kentucky is likely heading to the NCAA tournament and will try to give its seeding a potential boost with its first SEC tournament title in three years. The Wildcats beat Florida for the 2011 crown and lost to Vanderbilt the next year.
Kentucky, though, is 1-5 against ranked teams this season with its lone win coming against No. 6 Louisville on Dec. 28 in Lexington. Florida has won 30 in a row against unranked teams since its loss to Ole Miss on March 17.
The Gators are facing an unranked Wildcats squad for just the second time since the start of the 2009-10 season and first time since a 61-57 road loss March 9, 2013.