GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Florida’s youth was no match for Kentucky’s experience in crunch time.
Erik Daniels scored 22 points and Cliff Hawkins had a crucial steal and scored four points in an 11-0 game-ending run that gave the ninth-ranked Wildcats a 68-65 victory over No. 21 Florida on Tuesday night.
Hawkins’ poor free throw shooting kept the outcome in doubt until Florida turned the ball over with 1 second to go, but the guard’s steal and layup gave the Wildcats (15-3, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) the lead for good in the final minute.
“It was a great comeback. It showed a lot of poise and character on our behalf to hang in there after losing the lead,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “We have had that problem most of the year, but tonight we found a way to overcome that.”
Hawkins was just 4-of-11 from the foul line, but made two of his last four to finish Kentucky’s comeback from an 11-point deficit in the second half.
The victory was Kentucky’s fifth straight in a series that has developed into one of the fiercest rivalries in the SEC in recent seasons. Florida (13-6, 4-4) hasn’t beaten the Wildcats since March 2001, when they claimed a share of the SEC Eastern Division championship, but none of the losses were more disappointing than this one.
The Gators led 65-57 with just under 3 minutes to go, but didn’t score the rest of the way. Anthony Roberson led Florida with 19 points, but missed a layup that would have reclaimed the lead before misfiring on a tough 3-pointer that could have given the Gators the lead in the closing seconds.
“I thought our guys, in the last five minutes, played not to lose,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who started four sophomores and a junior. “At the same time, Kentucky kept playing with the same intensity. … Their experience, knowing how to win, was a factor.”
Gerald Fitch scored 10 points and Hawkins finished with nine for Kentucky.
Matt Walsh scored 16 points for Florida, but the Gators hopes to force overtime with a desperation shot ended when he stepped out of bounds trying to get the ball to midcourt on Florida’s final possession.
Florida trailed 33-29 at halftime despite shooting less than 35 percent (9-of-26) from the field. Roberson was the reason, overcoming a slow start to make two 3-pointers that helped the Gators cut into a 10-point deficit.
Kentucky faltered down the stretch during a 66-60 loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday and looked like they were going to let another game slip away when Christian Drejer hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to finish a 22-6 run for Florida early in the second half.
Drejer is one of Florida’s best passers, but his crosscourt throw proved to be the Gators’ undoing. Hawkins stepped in front of the errant pass and was left with a clear path to the basket for a 66-65 lead.
“I was anticipating it and just reading his eyes the whole time. He threw it right to where I thought he would,” Hawkins said. “You want to try and make them pass the ball crosscourt in that situation because it is a tough pass to make.”