Kentucky gets a win, and maybe a save
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky held Florida scoreless for the final 7 1/2 minutes on Saturday, and the Wildcats earned a 61-57 Southeastern Conference victory over the No. 11 Gators, perhaps salvaging their season from the brink of missing the NCAA tournament.
The Wildcats (21-10, 12-6 in the SEC) were pressed firmly against the wall when Florida took a 57-50 lead with 7:34 to play, but it was the last time the Gators would score.
The Gators missed their last 11 shots, a combination of Kentucky's clamped-down defense and Florida's seizing offense, which settled for long jumpers while the keystone of the Wildcats' interior defense, Willie Cauley-Stein, played with four fouls.
"He just brought unbelievable energy," Kentucky guard Archie Goodwin said. "The first couple of possessions, he got a couple of big blocks. Throughout the game, he was able to sustain his energy.
"A couple of times he had a couple of plays where he fell asleep, and he gave up two threes, but made up for it. To play with four fouls like he did is huge."
Cauley-Stein finished with six points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots, but his presence on the floor down the stretch, which was apparent watching Florida's offense struggle around the basket, was immeasurable in a box score.
Cauley-Stein, a 7-foot freshman, was thrown into the fire when starter Nerlens Noel tore a knee ligament on Feb. 12 to end his season.
Since then, Cauley-Stein's development has gone into fifth gear. After Saturday's game, Goodwin joked that Cauley-Stein's development has been even more eye-widening for those who saw him during the preseason.
"Man, if you saw Willie in the summer, you all would have expected him to be here for a long time," Goodwin said, laughing. "That just goes to show how far he's come and how quick he did it. He's an exceptional player now."
Kentucky took the lead with 3:03 to play on Cauley-Stein's free throw. Goodwin and Julius Mays sealed the victory with three free throws in the final 30 seconds.
The Wildcats opened the game on an 11-2 run, forcing Gators coach Billy Donovan to take a timeout in the first minute of the game in an attempt to calm the raucous Rupp Arena crowd.
Florida (24-6, 14-4) worked its way back in the game, tying the score three times in the first half before taking its first lead at 27-24 on Kenny Boynton's 3-pointer with 4:26 until halftime.
Boynton led all scorers with nine points in the first half. Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin was limited in the first half, picking up his second foul with 12:35 left and sitting out the rest of the half.
Cauley-Stein sat out the final 9 1/2 minutes of the first half with two fouls, but he led the Wildcats' surge early in the second half. He blocked a shot by Patric Young on the first possession of the half, and Kentucky turned that into a tie-breaking lay-up by Ryan Harrow.
Then Cauley-Stein slammed home a fast-break dunk on the next possession. He played with the head of steam the Wildcats needed to energize through Florida's attack, but he picked up his fourth foul at the 13:42 mark, at which point Kentucky led, 45-38.
Coach John Calipari took him out but quickly re-inserted him.
"I said, 'I'm forgetting he has four,'" Calipari said. "A basket doesn't kill us. You fouling out can kill us. He can play with four fouls. That team we had out there that last seven minutes, every one of them guarded."
Florida found itself pressing in the final 7 1/2 minutes when shots would not fall. Young missed a point-blank jump hook. A wide-open lob pass from Wilbekin to Casey Prather skipped through Prather's hands and into the crowd, which Donovan attributed to a lazy pass.
In the Gators' fatal scoreless stretch, they shot 0-for-11 and committed five turnovers. Even still, Kentucky made only one field goal during that time.
"For the most part, we defended pretty well," Donovan said. "We just couldn't make it. We don't need to shoot 50 percent. But if we make a couple of chippies around the basket and maybe one jump shot, you're right there to win the game, and you probably do win the game."
NOTES: Kentucky finished its home schedule with a 15-2 record. The Wildcats are 66-2 at home in four years under John Calipari. ... Archie Goodwin finished with 16 points and has scored double figures in 23 of 31 games this season. ... Despite the loss, Florida wrapped up its second conference championship in three years and third in seven years under coach Billy Donovan. Florida has won five of its six SEC titles during Donovan's tenure. ... Kentucky leads the all-time series against Florida, 94-34.
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