By Paul Newberry
AP Sports Writer
ATLANTA – Top-ranked Florida capped a perfect run through the Southeastern Conference when Kentucky failed to get off a shot on its final possession, allowing the Gators to escape with a 61-60 victory in the league championship game Sunday.
Florida (32-2) built a 16-point lead early in the second half, but Kentucky nearly pulled off an improbable comeback to hand the Gators their first loss since early December. Two missed free throws gave the Wildcats (24-10) a final possession, but James Young slipped trying to drive into the lane.
The ball squirted loose, and the horn sounded while Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison dived for it. A giddy Wilbekin popped up and sprinted toward the Gators bench in celebration. Harrison rolled over with the ball, then put his hands over his face in anguish.
The Gators extended their school-record winning streak to 26 games and awaited a sure No. 1 seed when the NCAA pairings were announced Sunday evening. Patric Young and Michael Frazier II led Florida with 14 points apiece, while Wilbekin and Casey Prather had 11 each.
Kentucky, also headed for the NCAAs, was paced by Aaron Harrison with 16 points. Young added 13, while Willie Cauley-Stein had 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.
Florida led 40-30 at halftime and scored the first six points of the second half for its biggest lead. But Kentucky used a 14-0 run to close within one point with just over 6 minutes remaining. It was a nail-biter the rest of the way, the Wildcats coming oh-so-close to beating the first team to go 18-0 in SEC play during the regular season.
First, Andrew Harrison drove down the middle of the lane and put up a running jumper with 33 seconds remaining, but the shot clanked off the rim. Dorian Finney-Smith grabbed the rebound for the Gators.
Kentucky was forced to foul three times to get Florida into the bonus. With 23 seconds left, Wilbekin missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but Finney-Smith came up with another huge rebound and was quickly fouled by the Wildcats. Finney-Smith missed the front end, too, giving Kentucky a chance to win it.
Coming out of a timeout, the Wildcats didn’t even get off a shot. Andrew Harrison dribbled the clock down at the top of the key, then dished off to Young on the right wing. He tried to cut into the lane, bumped a Florida player and tumbled to the court.
That was it. Florida ran off the court with its first conference tournament title since 2007, when the Gators went on to capture the second of consecutive national titles. They had lost in the tournament final two of the last three years.
Kentucky was denied its 28th tournament championship. The Wildcats have more titles than all the other SEC schools combined.