When you first enter the Florida men’s basketball facility there is one thing that greets you immediately in the lobby. The first thing you see next to the stairs, a wide glass case full of trophies, most of which have come thanks to achievements made under head coach Billy Donovan. Sunday, the Gators (32-2) added a fourth SEC tournament championship to its collection after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats (24-10) 61-60 In the SEC tournament championship final.
There have only been two college basketball teams with certain NCAA tournament merits this season in SEC basketball, and in the span of 29 days they’ve met three times.
The first meeting in which UF removed a Rupp Arena monkey off its back with a 69-59 win on the bluegrass and the second, a senior day triumph with a 19-point blowout win over the Cats at home. The Gators came into the third game looking to be the first opponent since 1979 to defeat Kentucky three times in the same season. As the top two seeds in the SEC tournament, act three would come in Atlanta and it did not disappoint.
Florida opened the game with two long-range shots from guard Michael Frazier II and the sharpshooter from Tampa carried the Gators in the early going. Through the game’s first eight minutes Frazier had four of UF’s five field goals and 11 of its first 14 points. Frazier finished the half as the only player in double figures scoring for either team, and Florida’s 40 points in the first half were its most since the second half against Missouri Friday and the best first half they’d played all weekend.
Things were different today because of the environment. Compared to Florida’s first two games, it wasn’t the stale, dome basketball with large pockets of empty seats. It was a loud thriving basketball venue in the Georgia Dome today, thanks to a large Kentucky contingent, that wasn’t lost on UF’s head coach.
“Make no mistake about it,” head coach Billy Donovan said. “Today was a road game for us. These guys won on the road again. It was clearly a road game for our team. We battled and fought and hung in there even when things weren’t going well for us.”
In the second half, Florida would extend its lead to 16 on a Casey Prather layup with 18:09 remaining in the game. It was the largest lead of the game, but the Cats refused to go quietly into the Georgia sunset.
Much like the game in Gainesville 8 days earlier, a young Kentucky bunch would counterpunch as the SEC heavyweights slugged to the finish in the conference’s biggest stage on the season’s final day.
The Gators finished with an impressive and balanced scoring performance, 43.4% from the field, 42.1% from three-point range. Young tied with Frazier for UF’s scoring lead with 14 points, Wilbekin and fellow senior Casey Prather contributed 11 each.
When it was over, Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin was named tournament MVP, and Frazier as well as center Patric Young were named to the all-SEC tournament team.
For Kentucky, “the twins” as they are affectionately referred to in Lexington, brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison, clawed Kentucky back before it was over. Aaron played a game-high 40 minutes and scored a game-high 16 points, his brother pitched in 37 minutes of his own (third most of any player in the game) and scored 10. They combined for 26 of Kentucky’s 60 points. The one player who was notably absent in the box score was forward Julius Randle. His four points came on a frustrating 1-for-7 shooting.
UK also struggled from three-point range going 3-11, a 27.3% mark that leaves quite a bit to be desired from the Wildcats, and was part of the reason they couldn’t get over the hump of the deficit. They were able to get it from 16 down to one but that was it, and Big Blue never lead the entire game. Wilbekin said the zeroing in on defending the land of plenty was important.
“I think that we did good job of focusing on that,” Wilbekin said. “Because obviously the three‑point line can really hurt you. The past couple of games coming into the tournament we didn’t do a very good job from the three‑point line defensively, and I think we really adjusted our focus and did a good job of it in this tournament.”
For all the shots the Wildcats did put up –51 field goals attempted in total– it was the one they didn’t that was the most notable at the end. With guard James Young driving for a game winning shot attempt, he slipped and got tied up on the ground with Wilbekin. Time expired, confetti fell and Gators jumped into the arms of other Gators in celebration.
In the coming weeks the granite pyramid UF was awarded after its victory will be added to the trophy case to signify this achievement, but that is not the final goal. As the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament the sights are now set squarely on something different, something more– a third crystal basketball and a reward for a national championship.
That would really make an impression on visitors in the wide first floor trophy case.