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Weathering punches, delivering knockout blow marks of a champion

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Doron Lamb (16 points) and Kentucky overcame a 10-point first-half deficit to advance to the SEC Tournament final. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Doron Lamb (16 points) and Kentucky overcame a 10-point first-half deficit to advance to the SEC Tournament final. (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 -- It looked like something out of a Rocky movie.

There they were standing at the center of the ring, taking haymaker after haymaker. Florida was delivering its best shots (3-point bombs and posterizing dunks), Kentucky was wobbling (particularly on defense) and the stone-faced Wildcats looked like they were about to spin into a daze and hit the floor with a disheartening thud.

Cue "Eye of the Tiger."

The Cats, one proverbial knee to the ground, withstood Florida's best basketball this season and still won Saturday in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, 74-71. Just when you thought Kentucky had finally run into a buzz saw, the cream rose to the top once again.

"They played their best basketball against us," said freshman forward Anthony Davis, who had another run-of-the-mill double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds. "Everybody was making shots, making plays ... and we still won. We've just got a will to win."

But that "will to win" looked like it had finally ran into an uncontrollable, unstoppable force.

Sometimes that powerful force is going 4 for 32 from 3-point range, ala West Virginia. Other times it's running into a team that makes 12 or 13 3-pointers. In either case, John Calipari said it's unavoidable at times. If it happens in the regular season, he's told his players to tap the opposing team on the rear and move on.

This time of the year, however, it's a different story. It's both the beauty and heartache of March. One of those nights can doom even the best of teams and send a season's worth of work down the drain.

While the stakes of Saturday's semifinals game against Florida weren't quite as large as that - lose Saturday in a tournament Coach Cal doesn't put much stock into and the Cats could just move on to Selection Sunday - but with the NCAA Tournament so close, it was a scary reminder that even the consensus top team in college basketball isn't guaranteed a national championship.

And yet, this Kentucky team just keeps on dodging every punch thrown at it. Florida's attempt at snapping the now-24-game winning streak was the best punch yet, an uppercut up to Mike Tyson's standards circa 1988.

The Cats took it on the chin and kept on winning.

"We're never out of it," Davis said.

Florida, which had been held at bay by UK's length in the first two meetings, knocked down 11 3-pointers in the third meeting and put the Cats on their heels. Bradley Beal and Erik Murphy were drilling 3-point shots (eight for the game), Patric Young was holding it down in the paint, and the Gators were running with and sometimes past the up-tempo Wildcats.

"Coach Cal told us no team is going to struggle three times so be prepared for them to make shots," Davis said. "They made shots and it kept them in the ballgame."

It wasn't like the Cats were missing shots, as they hit 58.1 percent of their attempts in the first half. And yet 12 minutes into the game, Kentucky found itself down by 10 and on the verge of heading back to Lexington with a disappointing loss.

As the Cats huddled up in the timeouts and tried to keep pace with Florida, the only thing going through Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's head was, "When they going to miss?"

The impressive thing is Florida rarely did. Kentucky did what it had to do at the end of the first half with an 8-0 run to take the lead on Davis' 3-pointer, but the sudden change in momentum and the roar of the Big Blue Nation at New Orleans Arena did little to take the wind out of the Gators' sails.

Showing some gumption, Florida picked up right where it left off in the first half and hit seven of its first 14 shots, including a three 3-pointers, to take a 56-51 lead.

The run, after a couple of jabs, looked like Florida's fatal punches. Apollo Creed looked like he was finally going to keep Rocky Balboa down.

But these Cats never give up. They never panic. When Florida delivered its best game, UK took it to another level.

"I knew we would change in the second half," Terrence Jones said. "We weren't going to allow that to keep happening. We made a couple of adjustments and had to communicate better. We just focused in and stopped them from doing that in the second half."

Davis, calmly and confidently said, "I knew we'd be fine."

When Young hit a jumper to give Florida a 56-51 lead, Kentucky locked down defensively and held Florida without a point for 7:33. In the meantime, the offense put together a staggering 14-0 run as Jones sparked a key second-half run for the second day in a row with a crucial 3-pointer and a momentum-changing put-back dunk.

Florida didn't go down easy either, cutting the score within two with 18 seconds left. But like all championship fighters, Kentucky didn't let Florida off the ropes with a chance to end the battle, hitting six three throws in the final 34 seconds.

It proved yet again the Cats can take a blow just as well as they can deliver one, and that's the mark of a championship-caliber team.

"We're always fighting," Davis said.

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