2:00 PM ET, March 8, 2003
Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Florida
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) -- They win at home, on the road, against good teams and bad. They look good winning by two, 62 and every number in between.To sum it up, the second-ranked Kentucky Wildcats are perfect -- as in a perfect 16-0 in the Southeastern Conference after a hard-earned 69-67 victory over No. 3 Florida on Saturday. "That puts a real asterisk, a real stamp on this team,'' Wildcats coach Tubby Smith said. "Future Kentucky teams will measure themselves against what this team accomplished.'' The Wildcats (26-3) accomplished it without the overwhelming talent present through the history of this storied program. And they closed it out in a scintillating game against the toughest opposition the SEC had to offer this season. Gerald Fitch scored 18 points to lead the victory over Florida (26-4, 12-4), which was the league's preseason favorite and brought a school-record, 19-game home winning streak into this regular-season finale. "I'm very proud of our basketball team,'' Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "But Kentucky has, over the course of the past two months, proven themselves to be probably the best basketball team in the country right now.'' Florida had a chance to spoil Kentucky's party. Trailing by two, Anthony Roberson -- possibly woozy from a hard hit he took minutes earlier -- got the ball after two missed free throws by Keith Bogans. Earlier this season, Roberson made a 22-footer with no time left to beat Georgia, but this time, the desperation heave at the buzzer was an airball. "I wasn't thinking about it going in,'' Fitch said. "I was thinking he would miss it. Only positive thoughts were going through my mind.'' The Wildcats didn't go crazy after the victory. Bogans, the leading scorer and possibly the best player on the team, tugged on his jersey and briefly mocked Florida students, who started queuing up outside the arena as early as Wednesday to ensure themselves good seats for the game. Then, Kentucky shuffled off to the locker room, knowing the biggest tests are yet to come -- at the SEC tournament in New Orleans next week, then at the NCAAs, where the Wildcats will almost certainly be a top seed. It's a well-deserved honor, considering they dominated the toughest conference in the nation, according to the RPI ratings. Six other SEC teams have been ranked in the Top 25 this season, and Kentucky beat them all. The Wildcats also embarrassed Vanderbilt 106-44 last Wednesday for victory No. 15. "This one is the sweetest because it's the last one of the season,'' Fitch said. "And it's against a great Florida team in front of a hostile crowd.'' By winning their 20th straight game -- the longest active streak in the country -- the Wildcats became only the second team to go 16-0 in the SEC. The last? Kentucky, of course, which did it in 1996 en route to its sixth of seven national titles. Before that, nobody had gone through the SEC undefeated since 1956, when Alabama went 14-0. "Most of my teams have overachieved,'' Smith said. "This team has done it more consistently than any team I've coached.'' Playing with a sore foot that threatened to keep him out of the game, senior Matt Bonner played in his final home game and was brilliant. He led the Gators with 25 points. By the end, he was wincing with each step, and now, he'll begin a six-day healing process before Florida begins the postseason. "They say great players play through pain, and that's what I had to do,'' Bonner said. "There were a few times when I felt like someone took a hatchet and hacked it on my foot. Besides that, it wasn't anything unbearable.'' His was one of a dozen wonderful efforts in a breakneck game that will go down as one of the best this season. Kentucky took the lead with 11:43 left in the first half and never gave it up, but this was no runaway. Florida chipped a 14-point deficit to 66-65 with 1 minute left, and had a chance to take the lead. Christian Drejer threw a sweet pass to David Lee for an easy layup, but it was nullified when official Mike Stuart called charging as Kentucky's Marquis Estill stood his ground in the lane. "I told Mike Stuart he had a lot of guts to make a call like that,'' said Donovan, who wasn't thrilled with the way the game was called. "But the call had no bearing on the game.'' After a free throw by Chuck Hayes, Florida again had a chance to draw even or take the lead, but Drejer (no points, nine assists) spotted Bonner limping through the key and threw a bad pass for a second straight turnover with 16 seconds left. It was the last of several Florida flurries that Kentucky overcame, and each time the Wildcats did it, they showed the huge difference between a great team and a perfect one. After Florida pulled within 51-46 with 14 minutes left, Fitch, Hayes and Bogans answered with three straight 3-pointers, almost all from the exact same spot on the right side of the floor. A few minutes later, Florida cut that 14-point lead to seven, but Erik Daniels answered with a driving dunk and Fitch hit another 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 12. Kentucky was good enough to win despite allowing the Gators to shoot 53 percent from the field. Lee had 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Gators. As usual, each player in Kentucky's eight-man rotation scored and contributed. Bogans had 15 points, while Estill and Antwain Barbour each had eight. But the big number Saturday was 16 -- a perfect 16 that gave these Wildcats a place in history. "It's a big accomplishment,'' backup guard Cliff Hawkins said. "And with the effort we've given, I think we deserve it.''
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