ATLANTA (AP) -- Matt Walsh cut down the net, put the bundle of
nylon around his neck and savored the significance of the moment.
Florida had finally won the Southeastern Conference tournament --
and beating Kentucky made it even more special.
Walsh scored 26 points, including consecutive 3-pointers that
sparked a stunning 21-2 run, and the Gators routed No. 4 Kentucky
70-53 Sunday for their first SEC tournament championship.
"We wanted to take down the champ," said Walsh, the
tournament's MVP. "I can't imagine a better feeling than beating
Kentucky for the championship."
Florida (23-7) had beaten the Wildcats a week earlier in the
regular season finale, and this one knocked them out of a No. 1
seed in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky settled for the second seed
in the Austin Regional and will open Thursday against Eastern
Kentucky in Indianapolis.
The Gators also defied history, winning their first tournament
title on their 40th try against the team that has defined success
in this event. Kentucky (25-5) had won the last two tournaments, 10
of the past 13 and 25 in all -- more than every other school in the
"We proved we're a team that can really follow through when it
counts," said David Lee, who helped the Gators manhandle Kentucky
on the boards. "There were times in March the last couple of
seasons where we came up short in the big games."
Florida was seeded fourth in the Syracuse Regional and will meet
Ohio University in the first round Friday at Nashville, Tenn.
Even though the Georgia Dome resembled Rupp Arena South --
Florida fans took up only one section in the crowd of 24,408 -- the
Wildcats couldn't fend off a team that's playing its best
basketball of the season at the perfect time.
The Gators have won seven in a row and certainly improved their
positioning for the NCAA Tournament.
"It was a long time coming," Walsh said. "We've had some
really tough losses to Kentucky in the past. This feels so good. It
feels so good to go out and beat the top team."
Heading into the NCAAs, Kentucky must bounce back from its worst
loss ever in the SEC tournament.
"It's just one game, but we didn't play well," coach Tubby
Smith said. "Obviously, we're going to have to play better to do
well in the Tournament."
Florida led throughout the first half and well into the second,
but Kentucky appeared to seize control with a 15-1 outburst that
had its blue-clad fans in an uproar.
Randolph Morris scored on an offensive rebound with 12:32
remaining, letting out a yell after giving Kentucky its first lead
of the game at 42-40.
After Florida turned it over, Patrick Sparks drove into the lane
and flipped in another basket that pushed the Wildcats to a
But it was all Gators the rest of the way.
"Even when we made the run ... we were still making mistakes,"
Smith said. "We took the lead and shot selection became a
With two-thirds of Florida's "Big Three" -- Lee and Anthony
Roberson -- struggling at the offensive end, coach Billy Donovan
began calling plays for Walsh. The Gators' big men set up some
monstrous picks, freeing him up for clear looks at the basket.
"We couldn't get to him in time," Kentucky's Kelenna Azubuike
said. "He doesn't need that much space."
Walsh buried an open 3-pointer to stem Kentucky's momentum.
After Morris put up an airball, Walsh hit another 3 from the corner
to put Florida back in front at 46-44.
Roberson drove right by Kentucky freshman Rajon Rondo for a
layup, the Wildcats turned it over, and Walsh again connected from
beyond the arc to make it 51-44.
"We just started executing and screening," Walsh said. "I did
the easy part: hitting open shots. It was more my teammates setting
me up than me doing anything special."
Ravi Moss broke the run of 11 straight points with a 10-foot
jumper, but that was merely a brief respite in Florida's dominance.
Roberson swished a 3, Walsh hit a leaner in the lane, Corey Brewer
scored on a fastbreak layup, Walsh made one free throw, and Brewer
scored on another drive to make it 61-46.
At that point, the Florida bench was hopping up and down,
knowing the Gators had finally broken Kentucky's stranglehold on
the tournament. The Wildcat faithful began heading quietly for the
With 20 seconds to go, Donovan called a timeout to give his
starters -- especially the Big Three -- a chance to get one more
standing ovation as they came off the court. When the horn sounded,
Brewer hurled the ball roofward and leaped in the air at midcourt,
pumping his right fist.
Kentucky shot only 37.5 percent from the field, including a
dismal 2-of-19 outside the 3-point arc -- depriving the Wildcats of
one of their favorite weapons.
Florida did its best work on the inside. Simply put, the Gators
outhustled and overpowered Kentucky on the boards, setting the tone
in the first half with 13 offensive rebounds. They finished with a
48-31 edge, led by Lee's staggering 17 rebounds and Al Horford
The Wildcats need to get that corrected before the NCAA
Tournament, but Smith's not sure they can.
"By halftime, I knew we had problems," he said. "That's
something we've been dealing with all year long. We're just not a
very physical team."
Azubuike led Kentucky with 17 points, but none of his teammates
cracked double figures. Sparks missed all six of his 3-pointers and
managed just four points.
"They just wanted it more," Azubuike said.