LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Julius Mays’ two free throws with 9.4 seconds remaining capped Kentucky’s comeback from a seven-point deficit for a 61-57 upset of No. 11 Florida on Saturday that revived its NCAA tournament prospects.
Archie Goodwin’s 16 points led the way in a game that Wildcats coach John Calipari described Friday as “do or die” for his defending national champions. Kentucky needed a signature win to maintain its hopes for an NCAA tournament bid.
Kentucky (21-10, 12-6) still needs another win in next week’s Southeastern Conference tournament to bolster its bid. The Wildcats responded with their biggest gut check of the season, outscoring the Gators 11-0 over the final 7:28 for their second win over a Top 25 opponent.
Trailing 57-50, Goodwin scored five straight points and Ryan Harrow (13 points) added two free throws for the tie. Willie Cauley-Stein, playing with four fouls, then took a charge from Murphy with 3:15 left and added a free throw 12 seconds later for the lead.
He later grabbed a rebound with 53 seconds left leading to a free throw by Goodwin. Mays, playing his final regular season game for the Wildcats, sealed it at the foul line.
Erik Murphy’s 17 points led Florida (24-6, 14-4), which missed its final 11 shots.
Alex Poythress added nine points and 12 rebounds and Cauley-Stein had eight boards and six points after a scoreless first half.
Kentucky’s urgency was obvious in the most important of “one-game seasons” Calipari says his team will experience during the conference tournament. Players were fully engaged in a pregame ceremony honoring seniors Mays and injured guard Twany Beckham, while the Rupp Arena crowd of 24,294 did its part to add more energy to the Kentucky team.
It led to the Wildcats’ most important victory of the season, following wins over then No.16 Mississippi and an overtime win against Missouri.
Having clinched their second outright SEC title in three years, the Gators wanted to fine-tune their game for next week’s conference tournament in Nashville. They entered the game leading the nation in scoring margin (plus-19.6) and the No. 3 scoring defense (53.0).
Florida’s only question mark was a two-game road losing streak coming into Rupp Arena, where it hasn’t won since 2007. Then there was the matter of dealing with a Kentucky squad desperate to break a two-game skid and earn the quality win needed for its NCAA tournament resume.
Kentucky’s chances didn’t look good, considering it entered with consecutive road losses at Arkansas and Georgia that quickly erased the optimism from the preceding three-game winning streak. Then there was the Wildcats’ 69-52 loss at Florida on Feb. 12, the game in which they also lost Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury. The team is now 4-3 without the freshman in the lineup.
Kentucky began strong, using hustle and good shooting to build an 11-2 lead highlighted by two baskets by Harrow. At least three Wildcats fought over one loose ball and two blocks by Cauley-Stein helped in holding Florida to 1-of-6 shooting at the start.
But four missed four shots and three turnovers by Kentucky over the next 5:01 allowed the Gators to tie as Murphy scored five points and Mike Rosario and Patrick Young added baskets. From there it became a tense, back-and-forth game defined by small runs culminating in a 31-all tie at the break.
Florida’s 18-13 spurt built its biggest first-half lead at 29-24, but Kentucky rallied with three straight baskets to close on a 7-2 run. Archie Goodwin’s hustle after missing two free throws helped him come up with a loose ball and draw two more chances from the line, making one with 3.2 seconds remaining.
Murphy’s 11 points led the Gators in the first half. Mays’ two 3-pointers and eight points carried Kentucky, which shot 12 of 31 from the field but stayed even by edging Florida 7-6 in second-chance points and 6-5 in offensive rebounds.
Cauley-Stein scored his first basket on a dunk and had seven points to put Kentucky up 45-38 with 14:13 remaining but quickly went to the bench with his fourth less than a minute later. Florida reeled off eight points for the lead, igniting a 19-5 run over 6:02 for a 57-50 lead.
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