GAINESVILLE (AP) — With strands of net behind their ears, Florida seniors Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young stopped at midcourt and kissed the floor.
They stood up, started walking toward the locker room and then paused at the edge of the court. With their arms draped around each other, they took the last stride in unison. It was the first step toward the next goal — winning it all.
Young scored 18 points in his home finale and No. 1 Florida routed 25th-ranked Kentucky 84-65 on Saturday, becoming the first team in Southeastern Conference history to go 18-0 in league play.
“This is the way to go out,” Young said. “You couldn’t have scripted this one any better. … What else could you want?”
Prather (15) and Wilbekin (13) also reached double figures for the Gators (29-2, 18-0), who have won 23 straight and 32 in a row at home.
Coach Billy Donovan called timeout with 36.9 seconds remaining to get his four seniors another standing ovation. They certainly deserved this one, especially since it was Florida’s largest margin of victory in series history.
“When you invest four years likes these guys have invested, it means something to them,” Donovan said. “They’re going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives. They’re going to have their children and they’re going to come back here and they’re going to be remembered for what they’ve done.
“They’ve done something that’s not happened here before.”
Prather, Wilbekin, Young and Yeguete have now won 113 games in four seasons, four shy of tying the school record held by Walter Hodge. They have the SEC tournament and the NCAA tournament to break the mark.
The latest victory seemed a lock early but was in doubt for a while in the second half. That was until — no surprise — the seniors took over. Wilbekin hit a 3, Young made a running hook shot and Prather started making plays at the rim.
“Those guys answered the bell,” Donovan said. “They made some plays.”
Julius Randle, who had his right knee treated during the first half, led the Wildcats (22-9, 12-6) with 16 points and 10 rebounds. James Young added 14 points, and Aaron Harrison chipped in 10.
Kentucky trimmed a 22-point deficit to 53-47 with 12 minutes to play, but couldn’t get any closer and ended up getting blown out.
“They’re that good,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And if you don’t come and play, you’re going to get smashed.”
With Florida’s ranking, the finale for four popular seniors, history at stake and the opponent, it was the biggest home game in school history. Single tickets to the nationally televised matchup were going for as much as $500 on the street, and there even was a successful marriage proposal on the court beforehand.
The Gators delivered for their fans.
Florida made 14 of its first 21 shots and recorded assists on its first 11 baskets.
Young, who scored 14 points in the first half, did most of the damage inside. Michael Frazier II, a sophomore who made a school-record 11 3-pointers Tuesday at South Carolina, got hot again from outside.
Frazier’s consecutive 3s pushed the lead to 19 and had the O’Dome rocking.
The Gators were up 22 after Dorian Finney-Smith’s third 3 of the half and led 49-28 at the break.
But Calipari got his team focused, and the Wildcats opened the second half by pounding the ball inside and getting Randle more involved. Kentucky used a 15-0 run to quiet the arena and give the Wildcats confidence they could pull off the upset.
Wilbekin responded with a huge 3. Prather followed with several driving layups, none bigger than the one that turned into a three-point play and pushed the lead back to 17.
“We took the fight to them a little bit,” Calipari said. “We made a game of it. All of a sudden we take the worst shots we’ve taken all season. Like, you’ve got to be kidding me. But that’s what freshmen do.”
Florida coasted from there, and shortly after the final horn, Young announced to the crowd that they would cut down the nets. The Gators opted not to do that after clinching the SEC regular-season title last week, but wanted to do it Saturday.
It was a fitting end to what was an emotional day for the seniors, who have national title expectations.
They were honored at midcourt before the game and presented with framed jerseys. But the postgame ceremony topped the pregame one.
Prather and Yeguete got the remnants of the cut-down nets. Young and Wilbekin were planning to get theirs from the practice court.
“I’m going to take a shower with it and everything,” Prather said. “I can’t believe we got it done.”
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