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Comeback falls short, Cats punctuate weekend's progress

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Aaron Harrison scored 16 points in UK's SEC title game loss to Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison scored 16 points in UK's SEC title game loss to Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA - Kentucky's recent two-game resurgence has been promising for fans and its players. It's restored some confidence in both and helped put a disappointing regular season in the rearview mirror.

But after back-to-back wins over LSU and Georgia to advance to the Southeastern Conference finals, John Calipari agreed with a reporter who said that Sunday's matchup with the top-ranked Gators, who had already beaten the Wildcats twice the season, would be a bit more of a measuring stick for their renaissance.

Kentucky didn't quite stack up the top team in the country on Sunday in the SEC championship game, falling to the first-seeded Gators for the third time this season, but there may be something to Coach Cal's proclamation that this isn't the same UK team of two weeks ago.

The Cats rallied back from a 15-point deficit midway through the second half on a 14-0 run before ultimately falling to Florida on Sunday, 61-60.

"So proud of my guys," Calipari said. "Had every chance to let go of the rope."

UK held on to the rope and had a chance to win the game on the final possession after the Gators missed back-to-back front ends at the free-throw line, but James Young slipped on his potential game-winning drive, lost the ball and time expired.

"I just took too much of a wide step and just slipped," said, Young, who scored 13 points. "That's just on me."

Andrew Harrison, who handed the ball to Young for the final drive, took the blame.

"I should have made a play," Andrew Harrison said. "I gave James the ball with not enough time left. That was completely my fault, I put him in a bad position."

Coach Cal didn't see it that way. He was kicking himself  afterwards for calling timeout after Dorian Finney-Smith missed the front end of his one-and-one.

"As soon as I called it I was angry because I don't call timeouts (late in games with a chance to win it)," Calipari said. "Now you're going against a set defense. They were spread out and scrambling. I could have stopped them and talked them through what we were going to do and let them play, but I didn't. I called a timeout. (Andrew Harrison) did exactly what I wanted. A little bit too late, but he did what I wanted him to do."

Twice UK stormed back into the game.

UK cut the Gators' lead to one when Willie Cauley-Stein made the first of two free throws. Aaron Harrison, who struggled to find his shot in the first half, came alive with seven points during the run, but Michael Frazier ended the Florida drought with a 3 from the left wing. Scottie Wilbekin followed with a running bank shot.

But UK wasn't done yet. Down 59-53, the Cats rallied back again, cutting Florida's lead to 61-60 when Young drilled a 3-pointer with 1:31 remaining.

"I think what really changed the game was Willie (Cauley-Stein) defensively, blocking a lot of shots, grabbing every rebound," Aaron Harrison said. "We started getting run-outs and hit a few shots."

In the end they came up just one play short. And though, according to Coach Cal, the game had no bearing on Kentucky's NCAA Tournament draw, where the Cats landed as an eight seed in the Midwest Region, to come back from that far down and nearly knock off the top team in the country was tough to swallow for UK.

"In the big scheme of things it doesn't really mean anything," Andrew Harrison said, "But as a competitor, you want to win and I feel really bad because I feel like I didn't make enough plays for my team at the end."

Andrew Harrison can hardly feel bad about the way he played this weekend though. The Cats' recent turnaround has been steered by him and his twin brother.

Andrew Harrison dished out 17 assists in UK's wins over LSU and Georgia while Aaron Harrison recorded 36 in the previous two games. But the Gators must have taken note of their play the previous two days.

Florida, which boasts one of the top defenses in the country, took them both out of the game early with its smothering defense. Andrew Harrison was limited to just two assists on Sunday. Aaron Harrison, who made the SEC All-Tournament team along with Julius Randle, scored a team-high 16 points but had to do so on 6-of-17 shooting.

"(Andrew) played another great game," Calipari said. "We didn't make the baskets for him. He had all kinds of attempts for assists; we just didn't make any shots today."

UK shot just 35.3 percent for the game. Still, it was hard to find fault with the Cats' effort on Sunday.

"Told them on the bus today coming over, there's no team that's been through what this team has been though - the barrage - and they have stayed together," Calipari said. "They have stayed as a unit. They keep believing in each other and they believe in our staff."

Though Kentucky lost to an opponent three times in one season for the first time since 1979, the Cats can take solace in fact that Florida played every bit like the No. 1 team in the country on Sunday and yet UK still nearly won the game.

It's a big confidence booster going into the Big Dance.

"We're a brand-new team and it show that we got some fight in us," said Cauley-Stein, who finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. "That's what we did the last game is just fight and scratch and claw our way back into the game."

UK was gunning for its third SEC Tournament championship under Calipari. The Cats have made four appearances in the finals over the last five seasons.

While extending their winning streak to 26 games overall, the Gators polished off the rare SEC sweep, winning all 21 of its league games this season. Florida was rewarded with the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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