University of Florida

Florida Gators thwart Kentucky rally, win SEC crown

Scottie Wilbekin impersonated Joakim Noah’s legendary “Stanky Leg” dance, but coach Billy Donovan could only smile and breath a sigh of relief.

Florida, tried and tested, capped the greatest run in Southeastern Conference history with its biggest defensive stop of the season, holding off Kentucky’s splendid second-half surge for a dramatic 61-60 win and its first tournament title since 2007.

Trailing by as many as 15 points in the second half, Kentucky battled back to within one, and with 14 seconds remaining had the ball with a chance to hand Florida its first loss since mid-December.

But smash trumped flash.

Wilbekin — named the tournament MVP — and Michael Frazier II — an all-tournament performer — combined to harass Kentucky freshman guard James Young into fumbling a handoff-screen and losing his balance, as Florida’s lethal, blue-collar team defense triumphed again.

With time expiring, Wilbekin, who finished with 11 points, six assists, two steals and provided a constant calming presence, won the loose-ball scrum and joyously celebrated with teammates as the horn sounded.

“When it matters, we are able to get a stop. We play as a team,” senior forward Will Yeguete said.

“We knew they were going to make a run, and we couldn’t stop it. But at the end of the day, we locked in. We just stayed together. We were able to move past [the missed free throws] and stay in the moment.”

Florida, which missed the front-end on a pair of one-and-one’s inside 20 seconds, overcame poor free-throw shooting throughout the afternoon (7 for 17) to win its 26th game in a row, becoming the only 21-0 SEC team in league history.

After beating Kentucky by a school-record, 19-point margin eight days earlier, Florida topped UK for the third time this season — the first team to do so since Tennessee in 1978-79.

The Gators (32-2) secured the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and will play the winner of Tuesday’s play-in game between Albany and Mount St. Mary’s in Orlando on Thursday.

“It doesn’t matter what your ranking is or how much hype you have or who picked who to win. It’s going to be determined by the players and the coaches on the floor,” said Wilbekin, upon learning of Florida’s seeding.

“It technically makes it easier. But as anyone knows, anything can happen in the tournament. Everything goes out the window when you start playing.

“That’s where stars are born. It can be a nobody comes in and scores 30 points on us … you just have to focus and keep the focus we’ve had all year.”

Florida, a top seed for just the second time in school history, is joined in the South Region by a who’s who of NCAA heavyweights, as No. 2 seed Kansas — who the Gators beat 67-61 in Gainesville on Dec. 10 — No. 3 seed Syracuse, No. 4 seed UCLA and No. 5 seed VCU, coached by former UF assistant Shaka Smart, are all in Florida’s bracket.

Win Thursday and the Gators get the winner of the Pittsburgh-Colorado game.

“We have the confidence we can line up against anyone,” said senior center Patric Young, who was named to the all-tournament team after finishing the game with 14 points and three blocks after a monster second half.

“We think if we’re playing the right way, there’s no one we can’t beat.”

But the Gators played with fire all tournament, struggling with slow starts and shooting 50 percent (27 for 54) at the charity stripe in three games compared to 47 percent (24 of 51) from beyond the three-point arc.

It didn’t cost them the tournament title, but it very nearly did.

In déjà vu fashion, Florida squandered its 15-point lead after blowing a 12-point, second-half lead to Ole Miss in the SEC tournament title game last season.

For 30 minutes, coach John Calipari’s much-publicized “tweaks” seemingly boiled down to not playing Florida, but the evolution materialized in dramatic fashion.

Propelled by Willie Cauley-Stein’s shot-blocking prowess and seven Aaron Harrison points, “Cat-lanta” — silenced until the run — woke up.

The Wildcats went on a 14-0 sprint to cut Florida’s deficit to one, as the Gators’ half-court offense went cold.

But Florida’s resilience shined again, as Frazier and Wilbekin both hit huge shots late. Frazier chipped in 14 points, including a dagger three-pointer to halt UK’s momentum.

UF’s sniper opened the game 4 of 5 with three treys, as the rest of UF’s team combined to shoot 1 of 10 to start.

Later, Florida drilled nine of its next 12 shots to take a commanding 40-30 halftime lead.

“It was just a great game,” Donovan said.

“I thought we played very well. The thing that hurt us was our free-throw shooting, us fouling them too much in the second half.

“The game got really slowed. When the game started going up and down the floor, it was in our favor, and we were able to build a pretty good lead.”