ATLANTA (AP) - Top-ranked Florida reveled in a confetti celebration, cut down the nets again, and let out a big sigh of relief.
Kentucky came oh-so-close to sending the Gators to the NCAA tournament with their first loss since early December.
By the narrowest of margins, Florida capped a perfect run through the Southeastern Conference when Kentucky failed to get off a shot on the final possession. That allowed the Gators to escape with a 61-60 victory in the league championship game Sunday.
“I honestly don’t think this was our best in terms of handling a close game,” senior center Patric Young said.
Florida (32-2) built a 16-point lead early in the second half, but Kentucky nearly pulled off the improbable comeback. After Florida missed two free throws, the Wildcats (24-10) had a shot at the game-winner. 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 lunged for it.
A giddy Wilbekin popped off the court and sprinted toward the Gators bench in jubilation. Harrison rolled over with the ball, putting his hands over his face in anguish.
“I took too much of a wide step and I just slipped,” Young said. “It just slipped away from us.”
The Gators extended their school-record winning streak to 26 games and earned the No. 1 overall seed when the NCAA pairings were announced shortly after their SEC celebration. They will face the winner of a First Four game between Albany and Mount St. Mary’s in the South Regional on Thursday.
Young and Michael Frazier II led Florida with 14 points apiece, while tournament MVP Wilbekin and Casey Prather had 11 each.
“There is a level of luck that comes into a lot of these situations,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “There just is.”
The Wildcats may have lost, but they head to the NCAAs looking more like the team that was the preseason No. 1 and some thought might have a chance to go unbeaten with its latest group of heralded freshmen. Aaron Harrison had 16 points, Young added 13, and Willie Cauley-Stein was a force with 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.
“It’s definitely a big confidence booster,” Cauley-Stein said. “Coming in here, we were a brand new team.”
Kentucky was seeded eighth in the Midwest Regional and will face Kansas State on Friday in St. Louis.
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 a point with just over 6 minutes remaining. It was a nail-biter the rest of the way, the Gators barely hanging on after becoming the first team to go 18-0 in SEC play during the regular season, leading them to cut down the nets in Gainesville the previous weekend.
They hope they will need the scissors one more time at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.
“It just shows you how much work we put in through the regular season,” Dorian Finney-Smith said. “But we’ve still got work to do.”
One thing the Gators definitely need to work on: They made only 7 of 17 free throws, and those misses at the end nearly cost them.
Andrew Harrison squandered a chance to give Kentucky its first lead of the game when a runner in the lane clanked off the rim with 33 seconds remaining. The Wildcats were 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 the rebound and was quickly fouled. He missed the front end, too, giving Kentucky a chance to win it.
Coming out of a timeout, 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 Frazier and tumbled to the court.
That was it. Florida ran off 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 SEC final two of the last three years.
“We did a great job of communicating,” Frazier said. “I just stayed with him and he fell.”
With its third loss to Florida this season, Kentucky was denied its 28th tournament championship. The Wildcats have more titles than all other SEC schools combined.
But they’re feeling a lot better about their NCAA chances now.
“It showed,” Young said, “that we could play with anybody.”
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