ATLANTA (AP) -- Tubby Smith might get excited if Kentucky wins
the national title.
But another Southeastern Conference championship? Hold back the
"It was a very efficient win for us," Smith said. "We
executed our game plan to beat three good teams."
Ho-hum? Perhaps. But leading Kentucky to its 25th SEC tournament
title -- more than every other league school combined -- served a
greater purpose Sunday for Smith, the Wildcats' seventh-year coach.
Led by tournament MVP Gerald Fitch and 23 points from Chuck
Hayes, Kentucky beat Florida 89-73 to earn the No. 1 overall seed
in the NCAA tournament.
Smith only hopes the eighth-ranked Wildcats play well enough to
avoid an upset. Last year's team had won 26 straight before
Marquette ended Kentucky's dream season in the Midwest Regional
The Wildcats, winners of nine straight entering this year's
tournament, play Friday night against the winner of a play-in game
Tuesday between Lehigh and Florida A&M. If Kentucky (26-4) wins,
the Wildcats' second-round opponent will be Washington or UAB.
"When you get to this point in a season, every opponent knows
every play you've ever run," Smith said. "So it's no accident
that they come in and perform well."
Kentucky kept Florida (20-10) winless in four trips to the SEC
title game as the Georgia Dome felt more like Rupp Arena with the
vast majority of 22,024 fans supporting Big Blue.
Florida coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators are seeded fifth in
the East Rutherford Regional and face Manhattan Thursday, knew his
team would struggle to hold back the Wildcats with swingman Matt
Walsh battling a bloody blister on his right foot.
Walsh, who entered with a 15.7 scoring average, finished with 17
points, but he limped badly after the game.
"I'm concerned about Walsh," Donovan said. "To start the
game, he had to have an injection in his foot."
The Gators were all but finished after failing to score on their
first seven possessions of the second half. Kentucky was 0-of-6
after halftime, but it led 54-40 after Chuck Hayes' layin with
Fitch scored 18 points, giving him 42 over the last two days.
Sophomore guard Keleena Azubuike, the least-heralded of Kentucky's
starters, had another strong game -- especially in the early,
tone-setting minutes. He had 18 points and a team-leading nine
Erik Daniels stirred the Dome into a frenzy with 7:25 remaining.
Alone under the basket, Daniels took a sharp pass from Hayes for a
dunk that made it 75-54.
Hayes, a junior forward, dominated the lane, shooting 10-of-14
and grabbing eight rebounds. While Kentucky is known for its
3-point shooting, the Wildcats used their size advantage to
outscore Florida 38-16 in the paint.
"I just let the game come to me," said Hayes, who also had a
game-high eight assists. "They didn't do a lot of double-teaming.
They were letting me get the ball in the post pretty easy."
Fitch, returning to the starting lineup after coming off the
bench to score 24 points in a semifinal win over South Carolina,
let himself enjoy the moment.
"I like being the MVP, but we've still got games to play,"
Fitch said. "I'll celebrate for a day. But the real big tournament
is coming up. We want to get to the Final Four."
Florida left the Dome with another disappointment in an
up-and-down season that turned bizarre when Christian Drejer left
school last month to sign a professional contract with a European
team. The unranked Gators held the No. 1 spot in The Associated
Press poll in December.
"Our team has a lot of resiliency," junior David Lee said. "I
have no doubt we are going to move forward and be a dangerous team
in the NCAA."