NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Like two previous victories over Florida this season earned with stronger finishes, top-ranked Kentucky took heart in having more energy after halftime than the pesky Gators.
Now the Wildcats can focus on a stronger start to their next Southeastern Conference tournament game.
Aaron Harrison and Karl-Anthony Towns each scored 13 points and Kentucky shut down Florida in the second half to pull away for a 64-49 victory in Friday’s SEC tournament quarterfinal.
This game followed the same hard-fought pattern as the two previous matchups, with the Gators initially taking charge before Kentucky seized control in the second half with its size and depth.
“The reality of it is, we didn’t play with as much energy as Florida played with to start the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I told them at halftime, if that’s what we have in store, like that’s how we’re going to do this, we’re going to have some problems.
“I thought in the later part of the game, we found that combination of Andrew (Harrison), Aaron, Tyler (Ulis), Trey (Lyles) or Dakari (Johnson). And see, that’s the advantage we have.”
Those advantages helped Kentucky (32-0) outrebound Florida 39-33, including a 16-11 edge offensively that created extra chances and earned frequent trips to the free-throw line. Towns also had 12 boards.
Kentucky hit 19 of 23 from the line, while Florida (16-17) was 3 of 5.
“They outrebounded us a little bit, but the difference in the game was the free-throw line,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Twenty-three attempts to our five was a huge factor in the game. … If you take away the free-throw line, it’s pretty consistent all the way through.”
Willie Cauley-Stein added nine points for the Wildcats, who tied the longest win streak in school history and advanced to Saturday’s semifinal against Auburn.
Jon Horford scored 15 points and Eli Carter 11 for the eighth-seeded Gators, who made just two of their final 12 shots and were 9 of 27 from the field after halftime.
Florida shot 39 percent but got just four points from Dorian Finney-Smith one game after he scored 23 with 11 rebounds against Alabama.
Kentucky had a lot to do with that. The Wildcats started the postseason sharply in their quest for a ninth national championship, a goal that players and coach John Calipari said trumps the issue of going unbeaten. The Wildcats insisted that losing in the conference tournament wasn’t the worst thing if they still won the NCAA title, but they gave no ground to the Gators.
Had Florida sustained its initial intensity, things might have been different.
“I think we hung in there pretty well,” Carter said. “Two times we played half a game, tonight we didn’t play a full 40-minute game. In order to beat them, you’ve got to play a full 40-minute game.”
It wasn’t the Wildcats’ best offensive effort as they shot 38 percent, but that was offset with 15 points from 12 Gator turnovers and establishing a strong second-half tempo resulting in a second double-digit win over Florida in the past week.
“We just made a few defensive adjustments and found a way to win, really,” Aaron Harrison said after shooting 4 of 8 from the field, including a 3-pointer.
Blue-clad Kentucky fans packed Bridgestone Arena as expected and cheered the Wildcats in their tournament opener.
Never mind that Kentucky faced a .500 Florida squad hoping to extend its season. Considering how competitive the previous two games were, it wasn’t shocking that this game was initially tight and remained tense even after the Wildcats went up by double digits.
Actress and avid Kentucky fan Ashley Judd, who lives in the Nashville area, was in the house again along with former NBA players Scottie Pippen and Antoine Walker, an ex-Wildcat.
Florida: Michael Frazier II struggled, going 0 for 4 from the field with two free throws after going 1 for 10 against Alabama. … Finney-Smith had eight rebounds.
Kentucky: Towns and Aaron Harrison combined to shoot 7-of-7 from the foul line. Cauley-Stein was 5 of 6. … The Wildcats accepted their trophy as the SEC regular season champions before tipoff with Towns carrying the hardware to the sideline. … Officials gave Calipari a bench warning late in the second half.
Florida: Season ends.
Kentucky: Faces Auburn, which beat LSU 73-70 in overtime, in SEC semifinal on Saturday.
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