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Third time nearly a charm for Florida, but UK overcomes

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Terrence Jones had 15 points and nine rebounds in UK's 74-71 SEC Tournament semifinal win over Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Terrence Jones had 15 points and nine rebounds in UK's 74-71 SEC Tournament semifinal win over Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team's postseason run, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK's journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.

NEW ORLEANS - In his tenure at Kentucky, John Calipari has logged a list of accomplishments too long to run down.

Between a three-season home winning streak, a perfect regular season in-conference this year and a Final Four, Coach Cal's teams haven't left much to be desired for an always-demanding fan base.

In the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament against Florida, the Wildcats had a chance to do something that they haven't done in seven years: defeat an opponent three times in one season.

The Gators weren't going to make it easy though.

"It's hard to beat a good team three times straight," Doron Lamb said. "They knew everything we were going to do. Every time we called a play out, they were telling (each other) where we were going to go. It's hard to beat a team like that."

In two previous matchups between UK and Florida, the Cats appeared to be the clearly superior team, winning by a combined 35 points in the regular season. Whether it was the old "hard to beat a team three times" cliché at work or the Gators simply playing up to their potential, it certainly didn't look that way on Saturday.

The SEC's two most highly ranked teams went toe-to-toe in New Orleans Arena in a game more befitting of a semifinal of an NCAA Regional than a conference tournament. Absorbing haymaker after haymaker, No. 1 Kentucky (32-1) advanced to the finals of the SEC Tournament against Vanderbilt with a 74-71 victory over No. 22/19 Florida (23-10).

Five different Wildcats scored in double figures, led by Lamb's 16 points. Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Terrence Jones each had 15 points, while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist added 10.

The Gators made 11-of-22 3-pointers, tying a season high by a UK opponent. Alex Murphy (24 points) and Bradley Beal (20 points, eight rebounds and five assists) were a combined 8 for 11 from beyond the arc, but the Cats were able to survive and advance thanks to the way they took care of the basketball and uncovered extra possessions on the offensive glass.

"In the first two meetings they weren't making shots," Anthony Davis said. "All the guards struggled. Coach Cal told us no team is going to struggle three times so be prepared for them to make shots. They made shots and it kept them in the ballgame."

Behind that hot shooting, Florida raced out to a first-half lead that ballooned to as many as 10 points. With its own efficient offense, Kentucky was able to hang around and actually put together an 8-0 run over the final 2:46 before halftime to take a 40-39 lead heading into the locker room.

The Gators, however, were in the game to stay. They locked down on defense and held UK to just 11 points over the first 9:17 of the second half en route to a five-point lead with barely a quarter of the game left to play.

It was then the Cats flexed their muscle on the offensive glass. UK had 12 of its 16 offensive rebounds in the second half, six of which came during a 14-0 run that gave Kentucky a 65-56 lead with just over four minutes left to play.

That rebounding, combined with a defensive effort that held the prolific Gator offense scoreless for 6:33, appeared to be a knockout blow, but Florida once again picked itself up. Murphy went on a personal 7-0 run to cut the deficit to two points with less than three minutes to play.

"They got a seasoned coach who he's not going to let them back up," Calipari said of Billy Donovan, his Florida counterpart. "He called great timeouts, he gave them their chance to win."

UK managed just one field goal over the final 7:20 - appropriately, it was a Davis put-back - but the Cats calmly stepped to the line and converted clutch free throws. Kentucky scored 10 of its final 12 points from the line, including two apiece from Jones, Teague and Lamb over the final 34 seconds to counter 3s by Erving Walker and Beal in the final two minutes.

"We've been doing that all season, I feel," Jones said. "Late games, we just have a will to win and are real focused in. When it comes to free throws, we usually don't miss too many."

After hitting 15-of-20 (75 percent) free throws against Florida, UK is now shooting 72.2 percent from the line on the season, best of any Calipari-coached team at Memphis or Kentucky.

Kentucky will face Vanderbilt on Sunday at 1 p.m. in search of its third straight SEC Tournament title. Calipari said before the tournament that he didn't put a lot of stock in the league tourney, but his Cats are in it to win yet again now that they're a game away from their 28th SEC championship.

"If we had lost and played well, I would have been fine. Walk on," Calipari said. "But now that you're in the championship game, you might as well play it to win it."

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