GAINESVILLE -- The winless record against Kentucky last year was on their minds. Losing three times to the same team in the same season will do that to a team.
But Tuesday night wasn’t about revenge for the Gators. It didn’t need to be.
“It was definitely about defense,” said junior forward Casey Prather, who played a pivotal role in the 69-52 win with 12 points and two blocks in extended minutes.
Coming into the game with the country’s best average margin of victory at 21.5 and the fourth-ranked scoring defense at 52.7 points allowed per game, No. 7 Florida (20-3, 10-1 Southeastern Conference) had little trouble maintaining those numbers Tuesday against No. 25 Kentucky (17-7, 8-3).
“They really did a much, much better job in this game than maybe they have in the last couple,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.
Florida started slow, thanks in large part to the team’s only two true big men in the frontcourt picking up early fouls.
Center Patric Young (12 points, 11 rebounds) and forward Erik Murphy (10 points, five rebounds) were whistled in the first 2 1/2 minutes.
But Prather, playing more minutes because of an injury to forward Will Yeguete, filled in nicely, picking up two key charges and scoring eight points with an assist and a block in the first 20 minutes.
Florida’s defense was then able to turn up the pressure, ultimately forcing Kentucky into 17 turnovers that the Gators converted into 20 points.
The Wildcats’ heralded big man and nation’s leading shot blocker, Nerlens Noel, also got into foul trouble with two before half and Florida finished with a 9-3 advantage in blocks.
“We were just trying to do what we were doing at the beginning of the year,” guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “That’s playing great defense, helping each other, just staying locked in on every possession.”
With Florida cold to start, Kentucky held an 11-10 advantage at the 12:24 mark in the first half, but the Gators went on a three-point fueled 26-10 run and were up 38-25 at halftime.
Kentucky’s 25 first-half points tied a season low, and Florida’s 16-point lead at 36-20 was the largest deficit the Wildcats have faced all year.
“That says that we’re a good defensive team,” Prather said. “We obviously lost Will, who is a great defensive player. For guys to come in together and help each other out, it speaks volumes for our team.”
Kentucky closed UF’s lead to 12 with less than 10 minutes remaining, but then the game — and perhaps the season — took a turn for the Wildcats when Noel went down with what appeared to be a devastating injury.
Trying to block Florida’s Mike Rosario from behind on a breakaway dunk, Noel’s left knee collided with the padding at the base of the basket.
Noel stayed on the ground for several minutes writhing in pain, yelling and clutching his knee and had to be carried off the court and to the locker room by three teammates.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said after the game he didn’t know the status of the injury.
“I didn’t see much. ... It looked ugly,” Calipari said. “It’s unfortunate, and I hope and pray that he’s OK.”
Noel left the arena in a wheelchair and was transported to a local hospital for further examination.