The Kentucky Wildcats tuned up for the NCAA Tournament in strong fashion Sunday, coming within one possession of upsetting the top-ranked Florida Gators in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
Freshman swingman James Young lost his footing as he attempted to turn the corner on the final possession of the game, allowing Florida to escape with a 61-60 victory.
Florida advances at 33-2 to the NCAA Tournament, where the Gators are both the tournament’s overall top seed and the No. 1 seed in the South Region.
Kentucky takes a 24-10 record and No. 8 seed into Midwest Region play against Kansas State’s Wildcats in the tournament’s second round, Friday in St. Louis.
If Kentucky is able to make an NCAA run, the Wildcats may look back fondly on a gritty showing in Sunday’s SEC final.
Florida led 52-37 with 13:05 to go and looked to be in total control, but the Wildcats reached back and out-played the Gators down the stretch.
The Wildcats had their chance to win it after the Gators missed the front end of two straight one-and-bonus situations at the free throw line in the final 45 seconds — the first miss by senior guard Scottie Wilbekin and the second by sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith.
Freshman point guard Andrew Harrison rebounded the latter miss, and that gave Kentucky the ball with 22 seconds left. UK coach John Calipari called time out with 14 seconds to go.
Calipari wanted Andrew to drive to the basket, but Wilbekin stopped Harrison, who had to dish the ball to Young coming across the middle at the top of the key. Young tried to drive down the lane, only to slip and fall.
Young tried to knock the ball back to Harrison, but Wilbekin fell on it as time expired.
“I was just trying to get to the basket, but I just took too much of a wide step and just slipped,” Young said. “That’s just on me.”
“I switched on to Harrison, and I just wanted to play the best defense I could without fouling and putting him to the line,” said Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year. “He handed it off to Young, and (Michael) Frazier did a good job of staying with him, and he fell.”
Calipari said he wished he had not called the timeout.
“I don’t like to call timeouts there,” Calipari said. “If I had to do it over again, I would not have called a timeout. The court was spaced. We could have gone and shot the ball. Done exactly what I wanted to do without a timeout.”
That sequence was the capper on what was an outstanding game most of the way, matching Florida’s relatively grizzled veterans (UF starts four seniors) and Kentucky’s freshman-dominated bunch.
Though it was a sophomore, 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein, who stood tallest for Kentucky. Cauley-Stein led the Wildcats with 10 points, 11 rebounds, five blocked shots and two steals.
Andrew and Aaron Harrison were again superb for UK. Aaron had a team-high 16 points, and Andrew had 10 points and four rebounds.
Young had 13 points and four rebounds.
Freshman star Julius Randle had a disappointing four points and seven boards.
Frazier, a sophomore, and senior center Patric Young led Florida with 14 points each. Wilbekin and senior forward Casey Prather had 11 points each.
The Gators shot 43.4 percent from the field on 23 of 53, while Kentucky was just 18 of 51 for 35.3 percent.
“I’m so proud of my guys,” said Calipari, whose team lost 85-64 to Florida on March 8 in Gainesville. “We had every chance to let go of the rope. For us to shoot 35 percent, folks, and be a second away from winning the conference championship is amazing. It means we really showed a lot of fight.”