Playing in their second nail-biter in as many days, the No. 19/22 Florida Gators (23-10, 11-7 SEC) showed passion and tenacity despite being outlasted by the No. 1/1 Kentucky Wildcats (32-1, 18-0 SEC) in the semifinals of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament on Saturday afternoon. Kentucky edged past Florida 74-71 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, LA, defeating their long-time rivals thrice in one season for the first time since 2003-04.
The Gators were led by sterling efforts from junior forward Erik Murphy and freshman guard Bradley Beal on both ends of the court. Murphy scored a career-high and game-high 24 points on 9-of-12 shooting while going 4-for-4 from long range and grabbing three rebounds. Beal added 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting (4-for-7 from downtown) with team-highs of eight boards and five assists. The duo combined to score 62 percent of UF’s points in the game.
The Wildcats had all five starters score in double figures. G Doron Lamb scored a team-high 16 points while three other players – F Anthony Davis, F Terrence Jones and G Marquis Teague – each added 15. Davis posted a double-double by adding 12 rebounds (five offensive) to go along with two blocks.
The contest started with a frantic pace as both teams scored early and often. Kentucky found success in the paint while Florida hit four of their first seven attempts from long range. The Gators used a 9-2 run including a blockbuster dunk by sophomore guard Casey Prather to take an early eight-point advantage, extending that lead to 10 points with 8:47 left in the half after Beal scored five-straight.
The Wildcats responded with a 9-2 run of their own to cut their deficit down to three, but UF found themselves back up seven on UK with under five minutes to play. However, Florida failed to make a field goal the final 4:24 of the half, and Kentucky concluded the first 20 minutes on an 8-0 run to take a 40-39 lead at the break, their first of the game.
UF allowed UK to get back in the game by going scoreless for 6:32. In that span, the Gators coughed up four turnovers, committed six fouls and grabbed just two rebounds. However, Florida found a way to get back in the game as Murphy scored seven-straight points to reduce his team’s deficit to two with 2:42 remaining.
Both teams traded blows the rest of the way with the Wildcats maintaining a two-point advantage with 14.5 seconds left on the clock. Down four after two free throws, Gators junior G Kenny Boynton missed a contested three-pointer, allowing Kentucky to hang on for the hard-fought victory.
UK outrebounded UF 36-22 (15-6 offensive) and used those boards to take an equal number of attempts from the field as their opponent (60). The difference in the game for the Wildcats came from the free throw line. Kentucky made 15-of-20 tries while Florida was just 2-for-2 from the charity stripe.
While Beal and Murphy flourished, the Gators’ veteran backcourt faltered. Boynton and senior point guard Erving Walker combined to go 4-of-19 from the field (2-of-9 from three) with nine assists. Sophomore center Patric Young was Florida’s only other consistent scorer, posting 10 points on 5-of-9 shooting with five boards (three offensive).
The Gators, already assured of a berth in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, will now wait until Sunday to find out where they will be seeded in the event. Projections have Florida falling in as a No. 5 seed and playing their first game in Nashville, TN.
Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert/Associated Press