GAINESVILLE — Prior to Saturday's regular-season finale against Kentucky, Florida senior guard Walter Hodge took a moment to reflect with his teammates. Although he has won two national championships and will leave Gainesville with more wins than any other player in Florida history, Hodge wanted them to know that even through this season of struggle, he has enjoyed being with them.
"He said he loved us, and he really appreciated playing with us," freshman guard Erving Walker said. "So we wanted to show him how much he means to us."
On a day when he was honored in a pregame ceremony, Hodge scored 18 in leading Florida to a 60-53 win over struggling Kentucky in front of 12,131 at the O'Connell Center.
The Gators (22-9, 9-7) ended a three-game losing streak and secured third place in the SEC East. Florida will play Arkansas on Thursday at 9:45 p.m. in the first round of the SEC tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. Kentucky (19-12, 8-8) has lost four consecutive and finished fourth in the East.
The victory also keeps the Gators' slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive, something that wasn't lost on Hodge, who has 114 wins at Florida.
"This was my last game in the O'Dome," he said, alluding to the possibility of hosting an NIT game. "I was determined to win the game today. This is my last game over here so I told those guys we can do this. I told those guys to play for me, and they did a great job."
In a game in which the tempo kept it a low-scoring affair, Florida scored the first six and led 29-22 at halftime. Nearly six minutes into the second half, the Gators led by 12. And with Kentucky star guard Jodie Meeks struggling from the field, and center Patrick Patterson not getting many touches, the Gators seemed in control.
Kentucky made its run, pulling within 51-46 on a dunk by Ramon Harris with 5:32 left. But Walker hit a 3-pointer that took the lead back to eight, then on Florida's next possession Hodge grabbed a steal that bounced off the official and went in for an uncontested layup to give Florida a 56-48 lead.
Meeks, who leads the SEC with 25 points per game, scored 15 and had five rebounds but made 2 of 9 3-pointers.
Patterson had 16 points and 13 rebounds but took just one shot in the second half.
"I thought we competed really well, we just didn't execute well," UK coach Billy Gillispie said. "I'm very proud of their effort."
Florida shot 38.9 percent from the field; leading scorer Nick Calathes had five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Florida hit eight 3-pointers, Kentucky was 2-of-11.
"The 3-point line and free throws (UF was 10-of-13, UK 5-of-10) was probably the difference," UF coach Billy Donovan said of a game he described as so physical they should have played it in the football stadium. "Nothing was coming easy for us, nothing was coming easy for them. I thought today was one of those days where you walked off the court and as a coach you thought, 'Our team really battled.' "
For the players, beating Kentucky was nice. Winning for Hodge meant more.
"We wanted to win for Walter, that was the main thing," said center Alex Tyus, who was 5-of-8 from the field and had 11 points.
Added Werner: "Walt's a winner in every aspect of life and we just wanted to send him out like that."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.