LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — For at least 30 minutes, No. 14 Kentucky proved it could compete with one of the best teams in the country.
The Wildcats just couldn’t sustain the effort down the stretch in a 69-59 loss to third-ranked Florida on Saturday night that ended their four-game winning streak and 22-game run at Rupp Arena.
“We lost to a good team,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I’m not happy. . but we had our chances, and we’re not ready to win that kind of game and I told (the players) that.”
Meanwhile, Florida (23-2, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) widened its conference lead to three games over the Wildcats in a marquee game pitting the SEC’s top two teams.
Calipari said the more experienced Gators were the better squad in crucial moments. As a result, the young Wildcats missed a chance to get their first signature win since a 73-66 upset of No. 13 Louisville on Dec. 28 and left Calipari with just his third home loss in his fifth season as coach.
He wasn’t surprised by the Gators’ late surge, fueled by the Florida’s experience and ability to win close games this season.
“What they did, they’ve done (in the past),” Calipari said. “I’m guessing in 10 games this year, where, with five minutes to go, four minutes to go, it’s anybody’s game. Then, they just grinded better than the other team grinds it. They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch.”
Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison was disappointed in the setback that increased Florida’s winning streak to 17 games.
“Losing is losing no matter where it is,” said the freshman, whose 20 points led Kentucky (19-6, 9-3). “You hate to lose in front of your home crowd, but they still supported us the whole way. We just have to go back to the drawing board.”
James Young chalked up the loss as a learning experience.
“We definitely learned that we have to finish out strong in games like this and just keep playing all 40 minutes and not back up in the second half like we usually do,” he said. “In the second half, we usually lose focus. We should have come out with just a little bit more energy and I think that would have got us the win.”
Scottie Wilbekin scored 23 points, including five critical free throws down the stretch as Florida won for the ninth time on Kentucky’s home floor.
Trailing 45-38 with 11:12 remaining, the veteran Gators (23-2, 12-0) turned to their best players down the stretch of their first victory at Rupp Arena since 2007. Wilbekin went 11 of 12 at the line, including 9 of 10 in the second half with two technical free throws with 8:14 left.
Calipari said he didn’t know what he said to draw a technical foul, but suggested Wilbekin’s free throws “could have” swung the game.
“I don’t know what he heard me say with my back to him, so you have to ask him (the official),” Calipari said.
Casey Prather scored 24 points for Florida on 8-of-9 shooting. Patric Young added 10 points, including two three-point plays during a 13-3 spurt that put the Gators ahead for good.
Kentucky outrebounded Florida 31-28, but couldn’t grab an errant shot at the biggest moments, especially on the offensive end. The Gators took advantage for a 12-8 edge in second-chance points but basically controlled the paint, outscoring the Wildcats 34-22.
James Young added 19 points for the Wildcats, who shot 48 percent but didn’t score in the final 1:55. Julius Randle had 13 points and 13 rebounds.
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