GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Top-ranked Kentucky handled another tough test.
This one was on the road and against Southeastern Conference nemesis Florida.
Aaron Harrison scored 23 points, Karl-Anthony Towns added 19 and the Wildcats remained unbeaten with a 68-61 victory over the Gators on Saturday night.
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.”
NO LYLES: Kentucky played without freshman forward Trey Lyles for the third straight game. Lyles didn’t make the trip because of an undisclosed illness, and Calipari said his status will be re-evaluated next week. “Lyles is a real, real matchup problem at the small forward spot with his size,” said Donovan, adding that the Wildcats also missed forward Alex Poythress said. “It’s hard for me to say where Kentucky’s at because they’re missing two really good players. We didn’t see their full roster.”
REMATCH: Florida and Kentucky will meet again in Lexington on March 7, the final game of the regular season. It could be the one that determines whether the Wildcats run the table in SEC play.
Kentucky: Outside the four key scorers, the rest of the team was 0-for-6 shooting. … The Wildcats shot 47 percent from the field and 21 percent from 3-point range. … Kentucky is the only remaining unbeaten team in the country.
Florida: Fell to 2-11 against the nation’s top-ranked team. All 11 losses are against Kentucky. … Fell to 1-11 when allowing 60 or more points this season. Florida is 11-0 when holding opponents under 60 points.
Kentucky: Plays at LSU on Tuesday night.
Florida: Hosts Mississippi on Thursday night.
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