GAINESVILLE — You always know it's a big basketball game in Gainesville when unusual, celebrity types start showing up at the O'Connell Center. Or about 2,000 of the opponents' fans. Or guys who are supposed to be on leave.
Tuesday night, it was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft who mysteriously appeared, chatting it up with on-indefinite-leave Florida football coach Urban Meyer between timeouts, while a boisterous group of Kentucky supporters made its presence felt.
And for about 16 first-half minutes, Florida (11-5, 0-2 SEC) thrived in the atmosphere and had the nation's No. 2 team slightly on its heels before falling behind midway through the game and seemingly out of contention.
The Gators eventually put together a late rally and tied the score at 72, but in the end Kentucky's dominating inside presence, speed and shot-making ability got the best of the Gators.
The Wildcats outscored Florida 17-5 in the final 5:14 for an 89-77 victory in front of an O'Dome crowd of 12,618.
The loss ended Florida's five-game home winning streak over the Wildcats dating to 2004. The last time Florida opened the SEC season with two losses was 1996, the season before coach Billy Donovan arrived in Gainesville.
"Our guys gave a great effort," Donovan said. "They gave it all they had and left it all on the floor."
Kentucky (17-0, 2-0) led 38-31 at halftime after shaking off a slow start, then jumped out to a 55-40 lead with 14:30 left.
But when sophomore guard Erving Walker hit back-to-back 3s and two free throws in consecutive possessions, the Gators pulled within 59-50. And suddenly, Florida began to chip away at the lead.
"I told them at halftime you understand they are going to make about 13 more runs," Kentucky coach John Calipari said he told his team.
And Florida did. Trailing 68-58, the Gators went on an 8-0 run — aided by consecutive 3-pointers from Walker and a layup by center Vernon Macklin — to cut it to 68-66 with 7:59 remaining.
"We always felt like we were in the game, we never felt like we were going to lose," Walker said.
But after UF tied it, Kentucky's Patrick Patterson scored on a layup and was fouled. He missed the free throw, but Kentucky got the ball back after it went out of bounds and Darnell Dodson hit a 3-pointer for a 77-73 lead.
"If we wanted it enough, we would have gotten the rebound after the miss," freshman guard Kenny Boynton said. "That was huge in the game."
With a team average of 6 feet 7, Kentucky claims to be the tallest team in the nation. Although Florida held its own in rebounds, Kentucky outscored the Gators 50-28 inside the paint.
Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe had 25 points and freshman John Wall 19 and six assists. Walker had 20 points and Alex Tyus 17 points and seven rebounds.
"We knew we had to be real physical against this team to have a chance," Tyus said. "Mainly, we just didn't do enough and they were the better team today and they got the win."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.