Cats Hold off Gators on Senior Day, 75-70
Perry Stevenson had 18 points - including the game-clinching free throws with 9.6 seconds remaining - and 10 rebounds as the surging Wildcats held off Florida 75-70 on Sunday, bolstering Kentucky's once fading NCAA tournament hopes.
Joe Crawford added 16 points and fellow senior Ramel Bradley had 14 points and seven assists in their final game at Rupp Arena as Kentucky (18-11, 12-4 Southeastern Conference) won for the sixth time in seven games and ended a seven-game losing streak to the Gators (21-10, 8-8).
Marreese Speights led Florida with 20 points and eight rebounds and Nick Calathes had 16 points and six assists, but the two-time defending national champions lost for the seventh time in 10 games and will likely need to do well in the SEC tournament later this week to secure an at-large bid to the NCAAs.
The Wildcats took control during a nine-minute barrage early in the second half in which they hardly resembled the offensively challenged squad that has risen from the ashes of a poor nonconference schedule on the strength of a suffocating defense.
Kentucky seemed to put the game away during the 27-11 deluge that featured six 3-pointers, a few of them coming from unlikely places.
Derrick Jasper (14 points), hardly the most confident 3-point shooter on the team, knocked down three triples during the run. The first was an awkward bank shot from the corner and the second a line-drive dagger from the top of the key, the result of a desperate heave as the shot clock expired.
By the time Jasper knocked down his third, a more conventional swish from the corner, Kentucky led 60-44 8:41 remaining.
Yet nothing has come easy for the Wildcats this season, who have made a habit of throwing away sizable leads at home. Sunday was no different, as Calathes and Speights brought the Gators back. Using fullcourt pressure to fluster the Wildcats, the Gators got to within 73-70 on a layup by Jai Lucas with 23 seconds remaining.
Kentucky burned two time-outs trying to inbound the ball and needed the Gators to knock a couple of balls out of bounds just to get to halfcourt. The ball eventually ended up in Stevenson's hands, and the sophomore who has played well in the absence of injured star Patrick Patterson calmly knocked down two free throws to seal it.
Kentucky will be the East No. 2 seed when the SEC tournament begins next week. The Gators will be the East No. 4 seed and open the tournament against Alabama on Thursday.