ATLANTA -- It was an exciting finish in Atlanta, but thanks to that same old stifling defense, No. 1 Florida (32-2, 18-0 SEC) won its fourth SEC tournament championship with a nailbiting 61-60 win over rival Kentucky (24-10, 12-6) inside the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
The Gators, who will enter the NCAA tournament riding a school-record 26-game winning streak, beat Kentucky for the third time this season, a first in program history. Florida will sit down for tonight's NCAA Selection Show ready to likely accept its No. 1 overall seed.
Florida never trailed on Sunday, but almost let this one slip away, as the Wildcats outscored the Gators 30-21 in the second half. Florida shot just 39 percent from the court in the second and gave Kentucky the ball with 14 seconds left and a chance to win after two missed free throws.
Here are five things we learned from the Gators' championship victory.
1. Florida's energy was back: After two slow starts in their first games of the SEC tournament, the Gators were wide awake for the Wildcats. They started the game with two quick 3s from sniper Michael Frazier II and pressed Kentucky out of its offensive rhythm all half. The lackadaisical team that had trouble coming out of the gate the first two days was nowhere to be found, as the Gators laid 40 points on the Wildcats in the first half, shooting 14-of-30 from the floor. Frazier and point man Scottie Wilbekin combined to hit six 3-pointers and score 20 points, while leading scorer Casey Prather got out of his tournament slump by adding nine points. There was a feeling that the Gators might have hit a little bit of a wall with those sluggish starts in Atlanta, but Florida played with the exact energy and passion that a team with so much hype and expectations needs before heading into the Big Dance.
2. There's no quit in the Gators' defense: One thing that Florida can count on night in and night out is its smothering defense. Kentucky entered the game hot on offense after two impressive tournament wins, but its guards were not ready for Florida's press and the Gators' ability to clamp down on the other end of the court. Twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison combined to score 59 points through the first two games of the tournament, but combined to shot 2-of-10 in the first half. Florida forced 12 turnovers and scored 11 points off turnovers. The Gators collapsed down low to take away easy buckets and never let up on the press. Florida has shown time and time again that when its offense struggles, it can more than make up for it with its strong defensive game. Of course, ending the game by not allowing a final shot was a fitting end for the Gators.
3. Kentucky could be a tough team, but The teamwork and cohesion it had in the first two games of this tournament can't disappear. When the Gators started to frustrate the Cats on the offensive end, they settled for poor shots. That's a quick way to leave the dance. After getting double-digit assist totals in the first two games of the SEC tournament, Kentucky had just nine against Florida. This team has all the talent and athleticism to make a deep run in March, but it has to play together. When the Cats cut Florida's lead down to one during a 14-0 run in the second half, they were working off each other and swinging the ball around to cut through Florida's defense. When they had a chance to win, they got there with teamwork blending with all that talent. Kentucky is playing its best basketball right now because of its new-found dedication to using each other. The Cats are maturing, but they have to stay consistent. A motivated Kentucky team could be very dangerous in March.
4. Florida doesn't panic: Even when Kentucky made things interesting and tried to snatch what seemed for the longest time to be a sure Florida rout, the Gators never panicked. Shots weren't falling and Florida was getting careless with the ball, but players never wavered. They stayed calm and stayed in their game as much as they could. Kentucky went on a 14-0 run in the second half and had the ball with a chance to win at the buzzer, making for a deja vu moment after last year's SEC championship game, when the Gators squandered away a 12-point halftime lead against Ole Miss and lost by three. But that smothering defense left Kentucky without a final shot. That's a very good trait to have in March. Florida now has the pressure of continuing its streak through March and April, but coach Billy Donovan has to be pleased with the fact that this team is prepared for runs. It's prepared for adversity and pressure. The second halves of games, which plagued the Gators in the tournament the last three years, aren't the concern they once were.
5. Florida has to improve at the line: The biggest weakness that Florida has is its free throw shooting. The Gators nearly gave this one away by shooting just 7-of-17 at the foul line. For the tournament, the Gators connected on 27 of 54 free throw attempts. That's not a number you want to take into the Big Dance. Shooting freebies like that will kill a team in March. The Gators have the defense and they go on nice offensive spurts, but they are bad at the foul line. It's hard to win against good teams when you struggle with free throws, and that could be the dagger that sends Florida packing early.