GAINESVILLE — Advantage Florida.
Facing a critical stretch in its season with home games against two of its biggest SEC East rivals — Vanderbilt and Kentucky — Florida finished 2-0.
The Gators led big early, then, as they have many times this season, faltered offensively down the stretch before holding on for a 70-68 victory over No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday night in front of an O'Connell Center record crowd of 12,633.
"Our guys were pretty resilient," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "They battled, they hung in there and they found a way to win at the end."
With Tennessee's loss to Alabama, the Gators (18-5, 7-2 SEC) remain in sole possession of first place. Kentucky (16-6, 4-4) is now 1-4 on the road in conference play.
With 12.7 seconds left, senior guard Chandler Parsons hit the back end of two free throws to give the Gators a two-point lead.
Then with time running out, Kentucky freshman phenom Brandon Knight put up a 3-pointer that hit the rim, and UF guard Kenny Boynton rebounded as the clock ran out. It was the first missed 3-pointer of the night for Knight, who was 4-of-5.
"Brandon drove the ball and he went to the wing, and Terrence Jones came to set a pick for him and so we switched it," Boynton said. "Knight took a 3, Alex Tyus contested it and made him miss. Alex came alive in the second half. On that last play, if he doesn't contest that shot, Knight was hot the whole night and it could have gone in."
Florida led by as much as 55-42 after Boynton hit three free throws with 11:50 remaining.
But Kentucky slowly and methodically chipped away at the lead. Knight scored eight during a 17-3 run that culminated with a 3-pointer by Jones to give the Wildcats a 59-58 lead with 5:40 remaining in the game.
It went down to the wire from there. The Gators actually helped themselves at the free-throw line, going 18-of-22 (81.8 percent) in the game and 13-of-14 in the second half. They were shooting 64.9 percent for the season going in.
"We did everything we were supposed to do," UK coach John Calipari said. "They deserved to win the way they played. We fought back and gave ourselves a chance."
The story line entering the game was Florida's veterans vs. the inexperience of Kentucky, whose starting lineup includes two freshmen. But early on, it was Florida's freshmen off the bench who dominated. Nine of Florida's first 20 points were scored by freshmen. And with 3:11 left in the first half, 17-year-old freshman guard Scottie Wilbekin led all scorers with nine points, two shy of his career high.
Knight, who entered with eight 20-point games this season, scored 24, tying the UK freshman record for 20-point games.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.