NEW ORLEANS — In its first two games against Kentucky, Florida lost by a combined 35 points, and the Wildcats made it appear they were playing a rec league team. So when the Gators earned the right for one more meeting in Saturday's SEC tournament semifinal, they vowed things would be different.
Mission almost accomplished.
No. 22 Florida (23-10) gave its best effort of the three, but No. 1 Kentucky capitalized on a Gators scoring drought and some clutch late free throws for a 74-71 victory.
"We didn't give up," said Florida guard Bradley Beal, who had 20 points and eight rebounds. "The first two games we kind of gave up down the stretch. But during this game we were down and we battled back. So I think from those three games this is the best we played against them by far, and I'm really proud of my guys."
Kentucky (32-1) plays Vanderbilt today at 1 for the tournament title.
Junior forward Erik Murphy had a career-high 24 points, including a basket with 2:43 remaining to pull the Gators within 65-63. But Kentucky went 7-of-8 from the free-throw line in the final 2:23 for the win.
"The game was tough," UK guard Doron Lamb said. "It's hard to beat a team three times straight. … We executed at the end of the game, and we made clutch foul shots and pulled out the win."
Florida shot 48.3 percent from the field (29-of-60) and 50 percent from beyond the arc (11-of-22). But the Gators shot just two free throws, while Kentucky was 15-of-20 from the line — a fact Florida coach Billy Donovan said altered the complexion of the game.
"I really thought the difference in the game to me was the fact that we got to the free-throw line two times, in by far the most physical game that we have played in all year," he said. "How we only got there two times is beyond me. But I thought that was a huge factor for us to be that close as we were with such a huge discrepancy."
That, rebounding and the Gators' two scoring droughts. Florida was outrebounded 39-25, including 16 offensive rebounds to seven.
Florida led 39-32 with 4:24 in the first half, but Kentucky closed on an 8-0 run for a 40-39 halftime lead
"We probably should have stepped on the gas instead of stepping on the brakes," center Patric Young said.
But a 6:36 second-half scoring drought was more costly. Trailing 56-51, Kentucky went on a 14-0 run for a 65-56 lead with 6:59 remaining in the game.
Florida now awaits its NCAA Tournament seeding fresh off two good solid games in the SEC tournament and playing with renewed confidence.
"Definitely, we know we can play with any team," senior guard Erving Walker said. "That's the best team in the country right now and we basically just played them on their homecourt, more or less, and we made it into a battle."
Antonya English can be reached at tampabay.com.