Cats Persevere, Defeat Florida 68-61 in Road Test
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) Top-ranked Kentucky handled another tough test.
This one was on the road and against Southeastern Conference nemesis Florida.
Willie Cauley-Stein chipped in 13 points, highlighted by a thunderous dunk over freshman Devin Robinson in the second half, and the Wildcats (23-0, 10-0 Southeastern Conference) snapped a three-game losing streak against the Gators (12-11, 5-5).
''You cannot have fun if the other guy's punching you in the eye,'' Kentucky coach John Calipari said. ''That is not fun. You have to be ready to punch before he punches you. If you're getting licks in first, you'll have a ball. It is fun! But if you come in that ring and all of a sudden your head is moving side to side and your chin, it ain't fun.''
Florida swept all three meetings last season, winning in Lexington, in Gainesville and in the SEC tournament. Both teams advanced to the Final Four, but have gone in different directions.
This one was closer than most expected. Even Florida coach Billy Donovan said this week that there was a ''huge discrepancy'' in talent between the two teams. Donovan added: ''I wouldn't say it's just our team. It's everybody.''
But the Gators played one of their best games of the season and kept it tight.
''Did we maybe make a step? Was it because of how poorly we played at Vandy? Was it because it was Kentucky?'' Donovan said. ''I think we'll find out as we move forward as a team. This is the first time in 23 games I felt like our team played to win the game instead of being wrapped up and consumed with themselves.''
Florida led by nine in the first half and used a 6-0 run to go up 44-42 midway through the second. But Cauley-Stein's dunk proved to be the turning point. Robinson turned the ball over on one end, and Cauley-Stein was the beneficiary on the other. He caught a pass in transition near the foul line, took two steps and then slammed it over Robinson. He was fouled on the play and made the free throw to put Kentucky ahead for good.
Free throws were huge down the stretch, too.
Kentucky closed out the game from the charity stripe and finished 21 of 22 from there.
Florida, meanwhile, made 7 of 14 from the line.
The Gators have lost five of seven, and the two wins easily could have been losses.
For Kentucky, this was just the fifth game decided by 10 points or less this season.
Every time Florida got within two points in the final few minutes, Kentucky answered. The Wildcats had just four players score for much of the game. Devin Booker finished with 12 points.
Andrew Harrison made a free throw late and was the only other Kentucky player to score.
Dorian Finney-Smith led Florida with 16 points and five rebounds. Kasey Hill added 12 points, Eli Carter had 11 and Michael Frazier II 10 despite missing much of the second with a sprained ankle.
''They played a lot of the game without Frazier and they still had a chance to beat us,'' Calipari said. ''That tells you what kind of game Florida played. They played to win, they fought, they did whatever they had to. They started putting their head down and driving into our centers and making layups.''
That was a battle. UK handled the pressure nicely, a 33-20 rebounding advantage and 21 of 22 from the line helped. pic.twitter.com/n52xgvlaiQ
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) February 8, 2015