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Gators drop out of first

The lead kept going up, up, up. And then it went away.

The Gators led the entire first half. They led by as much as 19. They led 35 minutes in all. And still they lost to No.

8 Kentucky 80-77 Wednesday night.

For No.

19 Florida (22-6, 11-4), today will be the first full day it has been out of first place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division this season. And the Gators are not likely to get back up there.

The Wildcats (23-5, 12-3) need only beat last-place South Carolina on Saturday to clinch the division title.

And for Florida, the most successful regular-season ride in team history finally has hit a bump. The Gators played well at Vanderbilt Saturday and lost 82-78. They played brilliantly at times Wednesday and still lost to Kentucky.

For the first time all season, the Gators are on a losing streak.

"We had a very big lead," Florida center Dametri Hill said. "Nineteen points is real big. But they're a great team. They just keep pulling and tugging until they've got you.

"We held them down a long time. They just kept coming."

For a team that was in control of the scoreboard for most of the night, the Gators were the ones on the run in the second half.

The Wildcats cut the lead to one. Florida pulled away. Cut it to two. Florida turned them back. Two more times, the Wildcats came within two and Florida held them off.

But the Kentucky press and Florida's foul problems took their toll. The Wildcats went up for the first time, 67-66, on a Travis Ford off-balance three-pointer with 4:43 remaining and UF never quite recovered.

Kentucky's shaky free-throw shooting in the final minute (4-of-6) gave Florida one last gasp, but Dan Cross' 30-foot heave at the buzzer went off the top of the backboard.

And so Kentucky, which set an SEC record with a 31-point comeback against Louisiana State last month, notched another.

"With their style of play, no lead is big enough," Florida senior Craig Brown said. "They've proven they can come back against anybody, anytime. It was going to take more than one half to beat them."

The Kentucky style is to press a team from baseline to baseline. The Gators handled the press in the first half. They didn't come close in the second half. Florida scored one field goal in the final 5:50.

"It's one of the best press defenses in the country and we did not handle it in the second half," Florida coach Lon Kruger said. "You can't afford to give them that many (scoring) opportunities off their press."

To put Florida's first half in perspective, consider this: Kruger could have been disappointed with a 44-34 halftime lead.

The Gators started so unbelievably hot, they were up by 12 points less than five minutes into the game.

By the time Florida had made its 13th basket _ in 16 shots _ it was up 33-14.

"They were on fire, but I knew they couldn't keep it up," said Ford. "Our press started getting to them and they fatigued."

The Gators were also in foul trouble. Andrew DeClercq, the hero in Florida's January victory against Kentucky with 20 rebounds, played only six minutes in the first half because of fouls. Thirteen minutes into the second half, he had fouled out.

At the time, Florida was up 63-57. Kentucky would close to 63-62 when Cross took a seat for a short time with his fourth foul. Within 29 seconds, the Wildcats were up for good.

As much as DeClercq's rebounding was missed _ he finished with four _ it also hurt because he is UF's designated inbounds passer after baskets. It didn't help to have others trying to pass inbounds against Kentucky's press.

"Their defense just gets to you. You get worn down by the up-and-down play," Brown said. "You have to make perfect passes all of the time and it takes its toll."

The loss likely will send the Gators to the Arkansas side of the bracket in the SEC Tournament next week in Memphis. Barring early tournament upsets, the Gators would have to play the No.

1-ranked Razorbacks in the semifinals.

With the setbacks to Kentucky and Vanderbilt and the prospect of Arkansas looming, Florida could well finish the regular season with three losses in the final five games.