ATLANTA — In the end, it was defense that saved the day and earned a championship, and for a Florida team that prides itself on just that, it was a fitting end.
Leading 61-60, the Gators (32-2) missed the front end of a one-and-one twice in the final 23 seconds of Sunday's SEC tournament championship game. Then as Kentucky guard James Young began a drive toward the basket in the waning seconds, Florida guards Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier forced him to lose control of the ball. The clock ran out, giving top-ranked Florida a 61-60 victory over the Wildcats in front of 21,021 at the Georgia Dome.
Wilbekin was named tournament MVP, and teammates Patric Young and Frazier were named to the all-tournament team. Less than an hour later, the Gators were named the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament.
"I switched onto (Andrew) Harrison and I just wanted to play the best defense I could without fouling and putting him to the line," Wilbekin said. "He handed it off to Young, and Frazier did a good job of staying with him and he fell. So that was that."
"It was great it came down to that because that's what we pride ourselves on — defense," senior forward Casey Prather said. "We just made a great hustle play."
It was the Gators' first tournament title since 2007, and the fourth for coach Billy Donovan in what was the final SEC tournament at the Georgia Dome.
It also marks the first time Florida has defeated Kentucky three times in one season.
The Gators will enter the NCAAs on a 26-game winning streak.
"I think it was a great game," Donovan said.
Florida led 40-30 at halftime then opened the second half on a 6-0 run. But Kentucky (24-10) went on a 14-0 run to pull within 54-53. Frazier broke the Gators' drought with a 3-pointer with 6:05 left, and Wilbekin's layup gave the Gators a 59-53 lead.
But Kentucky (24-10) rallied again.
A 3-pointer by Young pulled the Wildcats to within 61-60 with 1:29 remaining, but they never scored again. Florida didn't score in the final 1:55: Wilbekin missed the front end of a one-and-one with 23 seconds remaining, but Dorian Finney-Smith grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He subsequently missed the free throw with 22 seconds remaining, giving Kentucky the ball and a chance for the win.
"What a game," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "If you were watching that game you had to get excited about college basketball."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.