ATLANTA — Billy Donovan pointed to the foul line, while John Calipari praised his players for handling the ball near-flawlessly against one of the league’s best defensive teams.
No matter where one gives credit or issues blame, the bottom line is Kentucky led virtually the entire way en route to a 70-54 victory against Florida on Sunday afternoon in the Georgia Dome. The win gave UK the 28th Southeastern Conference championship in the storied history of Wildcat basketball.
“Congratulations to Kentucky,” Donovan said. “I thought (UK) played very well.”
Where he was most quick to talk up the No. 15/16 Wildcats (25-8) was how they continually drove to the basket, drawing contact and fouls, while the Gators lacked in that area. And while he may have been taking the high road (at least in part) when discussing how UK went 24-of-29 from the foul line while Florida (26-7) finished just 3-for-8, one thing he continuously did was applaud the Wildcats for doing what the Gators couldn’t.
“I thought we struggled,” said Donovan, who did get eight points and three rebounds from freshman point guard Scottie Wilbekin off the bench. “I thought we had some things around the basket we weren’t able to finish. I thought we missed a lot of layups. The biggest part was I didn’t think that we were strong enough and physical enough around the basket. And then I thought that I was very, very happy we were only down (34-29 at halftime). I think when you go into the locker room, and it’s 14-1 (in attempts in Kentucky’s favor) from the free throw line and some of the free throws were misleading because we fouled at the end.
“But there was such a huge discrepancy from the free throw line and Kentucky probably took the ball a little bit more physically than we did. And we didn’t take the ball physical enough to the basket to at least—and usually the free throw line is something that can offset a tough shooting night where you find ways to get to the free throw line.”
As Donovan mentioned, the foul line wasn’t the only place UF was beaten.
The Gators shot 22-of-57 (.386) from the floor, and did indeed miss their share of close attempts. But despite playing only six players more than 10 minutes while battling through their third game in three days (just like Florida), the Wildcats seemed to draw strength from the large crowd supporting them and had their legs under them a little better than UF as the game was reaching its conclusion.
Additionally, as Calipari was quick to point out, his team had just six turnovers on Sunday, despite Florida playing what Donovan said wasn’t a poor defensive game (limiting UK to just 41.7-percent shooting).
“We didn’t turn the ball over,” Calipari said. “We didn’t give (the Gators) a chance (to create a sustained run).”
Now, as it enters the NCAA Tournament likely as a three or four seed, UF has to figure some things out.
Primarily, what’s going on with Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus?
Tyus followed up a 1-point, 7-rebound performance against Vanderbilt on Saturday with five points and two rebounds in 24 minutes versus UK. Meanwhile, Macklin scored seven points and grabbed two rebounds while committing a game-high five turnovers in 28 minutes. That came one day after scoring six points and pulling down four rebounds while Commodores’ center Festus Ezeli went for 17 and nine.
What was once a major strength for the Gators was a negative in the semifinals and final. And it can be argued freshman center Patric Young (four points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes) and sophomore power forward Erik Murphy (three points and two rebounds in 10 minutes), particularly Young, were much more effective in their limited court time than the two seniors.
Also, while sophomore shooting guard Kenny Boynton (18.7 ppg, 3.7 apg) was a standout in Atlanta, Erving Walker struggled to find his shot. Take away a 5-for-9 outing in the Gators’ 85-74 quarterfinal victory against Tennessee and the junior point guard was successful on only 9-of-24 attempts (37.5 percent).
Some of the struggles on Sunday could have to do with fatigue, and Florida will be rested once the NCAAs begin. And there probably is very little reason for overall concern considering UF has won 10-of-12 with the losses coming to UK in Rupp Arena (where Calipari hasn’t lost in his two seasons on the bench) and in what was basically Rupp-South on Sunday.
“Florida has a good team, and it is a great thing that we were able to beat them twice (in three opportunities) this year,” Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight said. “I think they’ll play well in the NCAA Tournament.”
*All-Tournament Team: Darius Miller, Kentucky (MVP)- 13.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg in tournament; Kenny Boynton, Florida- 18.7 ppg, 3.7 apg; Chandler Parsons, Florida- 12.3 ppg, 8.7 rpg; Josh Harrellson, Kentucky- 10.3 ppg, 8.3 rpg; Brandon Knight, Kentucky- 15.3 ppg, 5.7 apg.
*Following the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari made a plea to the NCAA selection committee to include Georgia and Alabama in the field. Two days earlier, UF small forward Chandler Parsons gave an argument for Tennessee being included.
*Boynton was called for a second-half technical foul. He said it was a misunderstanding because he walked away while a referee was calling for him. Boynton said he didn’t say anything back to the official but did ignore his request for a quick talk.
Gator Player of the Game: Freshman center Patric Young came off the bench and was UF’s only real consistent presence in the post on Sunday. His totals were modest – four points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots – but that came in only 18 minutes. Honorable mention goes to freshman point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who scored eight points (all in the first half), dished out two assists, grabbed a rebound, had a steal and blocked a shot. He had just one turnover in 20 minutes.
Opposing Players of the Game: SEC Tournament MVP Darius Miller, a junior guard UF recruited out of high school, scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting, grabbed six rebounds, blocked two shots and dished out an assist while turning the ball over just once in 37 minutes.
Play/sequence of the Game: Entering the game, the Gators had scored 48, 48, 56 and 49 points in the second half of the last four contest, so a run was expected to open the final 20 minutes against Kentucky. However, UK opened the second half on a 17-8 run, expanding a five-point halftime lead to a 51-39 advantage.
Stats of the Game: Kentucky went 24-of-29 from the line, while Florida was just 3-for-8.
Next Up: The Gators will open play in the NCAA Tournament on either Thursday or Friday, depending on where they are placed (likely Tampa) when the brackets are revealed on Sunday evening.