LEXINGTON (CBS4) – The Kentucky Wildcats were all over the Florida Gators Saturday for a winning score of 76-68 that made Darius Miller so happy he stuck his tongue out.
This was Kentucky’s biggest win of the season, and saving a season sure seemed to taste sweet.
Miller scored a career-high 24 points as the 22nd-ranked Wildcats surged past No. 13, the kind of confidence-boosting victory Kentucky desperately needed following another late-game road meltdown against Arkansas on Wednesday that left coach John Calipari questioning his team’s toughness.
Kenny Boynton led Florida (22-6, 11-3) with 21 points and Chandler Parsons added 15 points and eight rebounds. But the Gators, who clinched a share of the SEC East title with a win over Georgia on Thursday night, couldn’t keep up with the Wildcats in the second half.
“About 10-12 minutes to go in the game our frontcourt just couldn’t quite finish around the basket that I thought were some opportunities to really stay within striking range,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “And then once (the deficit) got to eight or 10 we were constantly playing from behind.”
Calipari got some answers playing against the Gators, particularly from Miller. Calipari openly challenged Miller after a loss at Florida three weeks ago, pointing out his mistakes in a tough 70-68 defeat.
Miller atoned with the best game of his career, adding five rebounds, three assists and three steals in 35 energetic minutes.
“He told me I was going to have to step up for us to win, for us to be a good team,” Miller said. “I just tried to come out and play aggressive.”
Brandon Knight added 16 points and six assists without turning it over as the Wildcats (20-8, 8-6 Southeastern Conference) won their 33rd straight home game and gave Calipari his 500th career victory.
That number includes 42 wins Calipari-coached teams at Memphis and Massachusetts were required to forfeit by the NCAA for violations during his tenure, though he has never been found at fault for the infractions.
Calipari posed briefly at midcourt with the game ball after the game, but wasn’t in the mood to talk about his milestone.
“All I was worried about was (win) No. 20,” he said. “That stuff is, you coach long enough and you survive. I’ve been fired once. But you survive. You win some ballgames.”
Fighting for loose balls, crashing the offensive boards and trying to keep Parsons in check, Miller kept Kentucky perfect at home under Calipari and gave the Wildcats a much-needed morale boost.
“There was a lot of urgency,” Knight said. “We know we’re a good team and we’ve had a lot of close losses. We knew as long as we just came out an played hard, we’d be all right.”
Kentucky took control of a tight game with a 10-2 burst midway through the second half to get some breathing room at 58-49.
The Gators answered with a 3-pointer in the corner by Parsons and drew within 61-56 on a layup by Parsons, who appeared to be just fine in his second game back from a painful thigh bruise.
The Wildcats responded, as they always seem to do at Rupp Arena.
Calipari had chastised his team for being too passive in close games, saying his players appeared to be content to watch and let others do the work. It wasn’t an issue on Saturday. Kentucky held a slight edge on the backboards and outscored Florida 11-1 on second-chance points.
“We came out here and beat the best team in the conference,” Harrellson said.
The Gators have two more chances to win the SEC East outright. They host SEC West leader Alabama on Tuesday before finishing the regular season at Vanderbilt next Saturday.
Any chances they had of celebrating on the court of their biggest rival ended midway through the second half as Kentucky broke it open behind Miller and some scrappy play from Harrellson.
“Harrellson grabbing six (offensive) rebounds made it tough down there,” Parsons said. “Rebounding is an effort thing. We just needed to play harder than them and keep them off the glass. Their big guys did a great job of crashing (the boards) tonight.”
Florida briefly pursued Miller, honored as Mr. Basketball in Kentucky following his senior season at Mason County High in 2008. Donovan was impressed with the 6-foot-7 swingman’s athleticism. After watching him play the kind of all-around game he’s shown flashes of over the last three years, Donovan is sorry the Gators missed out.
“I think he’s one of the most complete players in the league,” Donovan said. “I think the biggest difference for him from earlier in his career to now is he’s really improved his shooting and now when you press up on him, he can go by you.”
(©2011 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)