ATLANTA — The once-beleaguered Kentucky team that many wrote off during a 3-4 stretch of the season capped off its impressive SEC tournament run Sunday with a 70-54 victory over Florida in front of 21,409 at the Georgia Dome.
It was the 28th SEC tournament championship for the storied Kentucky program, its sixth in Atlanta.
It was a bitterly disappointing outcome for the Gators (26-7), particularly for their seniors who have never cut down the nets.
"It hurts, but we have been here before," senior forward Chandler Parsons said. "We obviously wanted to be in that situation (as winners), but we've got to move on and we've got bigger things ahead of us. We want to make a run in the (NCAA) Tournament. It hurts right now and I'm sure it's going to hurt later, but we've got to move past that and look forward to the tournament."
For the Gators, who had to play from behind in their quarterfinal and semifinal wins, it was much of the same. Florida trailed by nine early, then came back to take a 24-21 lead with 10:26 remaining in the first half.
But Kentucky (25-8) countered with a 10-0 run to take a 31-24 lead, eventually outscoring Florida 13-5 in the final 9:20 of the half. The Gators went scoreless for a 7:10 stretch of the first half, and never led again.
The Wildcats played tough perimeter defense, holding starting guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker to a combined 18 points and 7-of-26 from the field.
"We really tried to focus in on keeping them away from shooting open threes, and then rebounding the ball," said UK guard Darius Miller, who had 15 points and six rebounds and was named tournament MVP. "We wanted every shot they had to be contested."
Florida was 12-of-32 from the field in the first half, and trailed by five at halftime. Kentucky opened the second half with a 7-0 run as the Gators continued to struggle with turnovers and missed scoring opportunities.
"The difference tonight from other games is we just missed shots," said Boynton (18.7 points in the tournament), who along with Parsons (12.3 points, 8.7 rebounds) was named to the All-Tournament team. "Easy layups around the rim, jumpers from outside weren't falling. So on nights like this, you have to play more defense."
Kentucky shot 41 percent from the field and scored 20 off 14 Florida turnovers. Four Wildcats scored in double figures, including DeAndre Liggins who suffered a sprained ankle on Saturday. Kentucky's Doron Lamb, who also suffered a sprained ankle Saturday, scored six in 23 minutes.
The Gators struggled with their inside game. Center Vernon Macklin had seven points and five turnovers.
And the outside shots didn't fall. Florida, which had four starters in double figures in the quarterfinals and three in the semifinals, had one — Boynton with 10 — on Sunday.
Kentucky took advantage of 22 Florida personal fouls, hitting 24-of-29 free throws, including 10 of 12 in the final 2:18 to secure the victory.
"The biggest thing was I didn't think we were strong enough and physical enough around the basket," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "… There was such a huge discrepancy from the free-throw line (UF was 3-of-8) and Kentucky probably took the ball (to the hoop) a little bit more physically than we did. The difference was I thought was we weren't physical enough to get fouled."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.