The No. 6/7 Florida Gators (20-3, 10-1 SEC) loudly answered many of their critics on Tuesday evening with a sound and complete 69-52 takedown of the No. 25 Kentucky Wildcats (17-7, 8-3 SEC) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, FL.
Florida, which was 1-7 in its last eight games against Kentucky heading into Tuesday night’s contest, earned its first victory over its rivals since Feb. 5, 2011 to remain undefeated at home this season (12-0) and end the visitors’ five-game winning streak. The 17-point margin of victory over UK was the second-largest in program history and most for UF since it earned a 70-53 win on March 13, 2005.
The Gators also took a two-game lead in the Southeastern Conference standings and improved to 4-1 against top-25 opponents during the 2012-13 campaign.
UF was led by stellar performances from its junior class including great showings by point guard Scottie Wilbekin, center Patric Young and forward Casey Prather. Wilbekin registered game-highs of 14 points and eight assists, Young posted a double-double of 12 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, and Prather scored 12 points. All three gave superb efforts on the defensive end as well.
After missing its first five shots, Florida used an 8-0 run including consecutive baskets by redshirt senior guard Mike Rosario to take an early 8-4 lead. Kentucky soon fought back and got on top 11-10 with 12 minutes left in the half, but a huge 26-9 scoring stretch by the hosts rocketed UF ahead 36-20.
Prather, playing extended minutes with junior F Will Yeguete (knee) injured and senior F Erik Murphy out of the game with two fouls, had the highlight play of the opening half. After Wilbekin spun out of tight coverage, he hit Prather with a behind-the-back bounce pass with his left hand that was driven into the lane for a ferocious one-handed jam that gave the Gators a 14-point lead.
The Wildcats, however, were able to end the first 20 minutes with a bit of intensity and trailed 38-25 at the break due to a quick 5-0 run in the two minutes before the break.
Back in the starting lineup after sitting the final 8:06 of the first half, Murphy made three great plays in a row to boost Florida’s lead up to 17 points with 17 minutes to play. After blocking an alley-oop meant for Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel, Murphy failed to recover the ball but quickly took a charge. Down on the other end of the court, he drained a triple to put the Gators ahead 43-26 as the Wildcats called a timeout.
A 7-0 run for Florida boosted it ahead of Kentucky by a game-high 19 points, but five quick points for the Wildcats – three off a broken press and two more on a fastbreak following a turnover – cut their deficit down to 14 points.
UK eventually got UF’s lead down to 12 after another sudden 5-0 run with 9:36 left to play, but the air would quickly be taken out of Kentucky’s sails as Noel went down with what appeared to be a serious left knee injury. Tracking down Rosario on a fastbreak, Noel slammed his layup into the stands but rammed his knee into the stanchion and went down in agony before being carried off the court by three teammates.
Immediately after Noel left the game, the Gators began attacking the paint. Prather caused major problems for the Wildcats as he first found Murphy wide open under the basket, then went back down the court and blocked seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, and finally fought his way into the paint for a layup as part of a 6-2 run that put UF back up 18 points and essentially ended the game.
Florida was the superior team to Kentucky in most facets of the game, outshooting the Wildcats from the field (.491-.420), from beyond the arc (.429-.333) and at the free throw line (.786-.545). The Gators registered 17 assists on 26 made baskets, out-blocked the visitors 9-3 and forced more turnovers (11-17). UF outscored UK off turnovers (20-5), in the paint (36-26) and on second chances (10-6), but Kentucky’s bench scored 21 points compared to just 12 for Florida’s reserves.
Cauley-Stein and G Julius Mays scored 10 points each for the Wildcats.
Rosario (12) and Murphy (10) also scored in double figures for the Gators.
The victory gave head coach Billy Donovan his 15th consecutive 20-win season.
Senior G Kenny Boynton started the 128th game of his career, tying him with Andrew DeClerq for most in program history. Boynton also moved into a tie for eighth on the games played list with Matt Bonner (131).
Florida will look to keep its winning ways going as it heads back out on the road for a contest against Auburn on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. The game will air live on SEC Network (check your local listings).
Noel video filmed by Gainesville Television Network’s Julie Quittner.