LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — After downplaying the possibility of the achievement in recent weeks, top-ranked Kentucky finally embraced its milestone following the end of Saturday’s 67-50 victory over Florida.
The Wildcats gathered at midcourt and hurriedly donned blue T-shirts with “31-0 Not Done Yet” in white. For sure, they seek nine more wins to claim the ultimate achievement for the storied program.
But taking a moment to recognize Kentucky’s first 31-0 regular season was significant for players who insist that winning the program’s ninth NCAA championship is most important. At the same time this celebration is temporary as the Wildcats will soon resume working toward the only thing that matters.
“We take pride but our journey is not done,” said freshman forward Trey Lyles, who had 14 points and six rebounds for Kentucky. “We have a lot of work to do and we only have two guaranteed games left in our season, so we have to make sure we go out there and play hard and together.
“It just shows how great these guys are on the team, how much we care for one another and how much we want to win.”
Lyles, who missed last month’s matchup in Gainesville with strep throat, was essential in getting the Wildcats started toward history with 10 first-half points. Karl-Anthony Towns added 13 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and three assists for the Wildcats (31-0, 18-0 Southeastern Conference).
Of Lyles, Towns said, “today is just another showing of how great he is.”
Aaron Harrison added nine points while Willie Cauley-Stein and Andrew Harrison each had eight for Kentucky, which shot 47 percent and outrebounded the Gators 31-26. Cauley-Stein had seven rebounds.
Kentucky was in charge for the most part but took control after Devin Booker’s 3-pointer with 10:16 left made it 47-41. The Wildcats’ 20-9 run after that sealed its accomplishment, and a blue-clad sellout crowd stayed long after the final horn to cheer loudly as players flashed souvenirs of their feat.
Unaware of the T-shirts, coach John Calipari was told about them afterward and joked, “that’s really nice.”
Kasey Hill scored 15 points and Dorian Finney-Smith had 12 for Florida (15-16, 8-10), which couldn’t keep up with the Wildcats’ depth in the final 10 minutes. The Gators were outscored 46-13 in bench points alone and shot 43 percent.
Kentucky’s methodical path to victory and the milestone achievement were enough for Florida coach Billy Donovan to declare that it could stand for “a long, long time.”
“I think it’s important for people to reflect in a real positive way of what they have accomplished this season,” said Donovan, whose team went 21-0 in SEC play last season including a tournament championship victory over Kentucky.
“I felt like, for 30 minutes we played really good basketball. .. Then, at the 10-minute point, their offensive rebounding started to affect us some.”
Florida trailed just 30-27 at halftime but led several times thanks to aggressive play on both ends. The Gators scored 10 points off seven Wildcats turnovers, outscored the Wildcats 11-2 on the break and forced the action inside, leading to an 18-16 advantage in the paint.
Kentucky eventually clamped down inside defensively and asserted itself on the other end for several key baskets and a lot of free throws. The Wildcats made 12 of 16 from the line to pull away and take their place in program history — hopefully with more achievements to follow.
“This is how this is supposed to work,” Calipari said. “We do this together, everyone benefits. Not the coach, not the school, all the players benefit. That’s what’s happening and I’m proud of them.”
SO LONG, SENIORS
Kentucky seniors Tod Lanter, Brian Long and Sam Malone entered the game with 12 points and 12 rebounds in 49 games combined, yet still were honored as Wildcats heroes in a pregame ceremony. Long and Malone were part of the 2012 title team and last year’s runner-up squad that included Lanter, a Lexington native who transferred from junior college.
Calipari even started them to the surprise of many, though not for long as Cauley-Stein, Aaron Harrison and Lyles replaced the trio of walk-ons 90 seconds in. They re-entered in the final minute.
Florida: Michael Frazier II returned from a seven-game absence and had a 3-pointer in 18 minutes. … The Gators finished 5 of 11 from 3-point range but shot just seven free throws, making three.
Kentucky: After being outscored 18-16 in the paint through 20 minutes, the Wildcats topped Florida 20-8 in the second half. … Booker finished with six points.
Florida: SEC Tournament, Nashville.
Kentucky: Plays Friday in SEC Tournament.
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